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Famous for the wrong reasons

Famous for the wrong reasons

By Gino Dal Pont

Ethics 

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There may be instances where a person’s fame can preclude membership of the legal profession.

A person’s character, it has been said, “is the sum of his or her mental or moral qualities”.1 In two LIJ columns last year I probed the issue of whether character can change, through the lens of case law dealing with admission to practice, removal from practice and ultimately readmission to practice. But in these contexts the relevant inquiry is not confined to a person’s character. Both the general law and statute adopt the cumulative phrase “good fame and character”. Fame, as an ordinary word without any technical legal definition, evidently targets a person’s reputation in the relevant community.

Of course, this does not mean that fame and character are mutually exclusive. The two intersect, as known blights on a person’s character can no doubt impact upon his or her reputation. And, as experience has repeatedly shown, media beat-ups over a person’s reputation can cast unjustified aspersions over his or her character. There nonetheless remains a distinction, a NSW judge observing that “[f]ame involves being known, favourably, by a large section of the public, whilst character is directed to a more objective evaluation which might conflict with what the general public thinks”.2

Various judicial statements remark the challenges underscoring any change in character. For instance, it has been observed that “[c]haracter does not change readily”3 and that “[r]eformations of character and of behaviour can doubtless occur but their occurrence is not the usual but the exceptional thing”.4 A New Zealand judge has gone so far as to brand character as an “inherently immutable state”,5 that is, a state unable to be changed. Taken at face value, these sentiments disclaim scope for any genuine road to Damascus experience, but instead pay heed to the Biblical rhetorical question surrounding leopards changing their spots.6

Yet the very fact that people are admitted and readmitted to practice following events that, at an earlier time, cast a long shadow over their character suggests that good character can, for these purposes, be potentially earned or regained. Assuming this to have occurred in a given case, the question remains as to whether a person’s fame can nonetheless preclude membership of the profession. A Queensland judge has, on this point, cautioned that one should “focus on the applicant’s intrinsic character, and not be unduly distracted by his good fame, whether within the legal profession or the wider community”.7 In the internet and social media age, “whereby every mistake in life has the potential to be recorded forever”, this approach, it has been suggested, “has much to commend it”.8

But it does not, it seems, mean that questions over a person’s fame (indeed, infamy) can be ignored at the altar of character redemption. In a recent decision, the NSW Supreme Court refused readmission to a person who had been removed from the roll nearly 30 years earlier following a conviction for conspiracy to bribe the minister for corrective services. This was despite evident contrition, an exemplary record in responsible positions thereafter, and supportive testimonials. While accepting that the risks of a further similar transgression were “so low that they can be discounted”,9 Beech-Jones J viewed the circumstances of the offence as so grave that a decision to readmit “would undermine public confidence in the standards expected of the legal profession”.10

This prompted his Honour to surmise that “it may be that in a given case the circumstances surrounding a conviction are so grave that the particular applicant has no realistic prospect of ever being readmitted”.11 If so, “bad” fame can prove just as, if not more, immutable than bad character, even though there may be little (more) a person can do to alter his or her reputation.

Snapshot

  • Those who aspire to membership of the legal profession must exhibit good fame and character.
  • Courts have spoken of difficulties in removing the stains of bad character.
  • There may, in any event, be instances where questions over a person’s fame can block membership to the profession.

Gino Dal Pont is Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania.

1. Singh v Auckland District Law Society [2002] 3 NZLR 392 at [45] per Harrison J.

2. Jackson (previously known as Subramaniam) v Legal Practitioners Admission Board [2006] NSWSC 1338 at [56] per Johnson J.

3. Re B [1981] 2 NSWLR 372 at 381 per Moffitt P.

4. Ex parte Tziniolis (1966) 67 SR (NSW) 448 at 461 per Walsh JA.

5. Singh v Auckland District Law Society [2002] 3 NZLR 392 at [45] per Harrison J.

6. Jeremiah 13:23.

7. Janus v Queensland Law Society Incorporated [2001] QCA 180 at [12] per de Jersey CJ.

8. Hilton v Legal Profession Admission Board [2016] NSWSC 1617 at [109] per Beech-Jones J.

9. Note 8 above at [110].

10. Note 8 above at [116].

11. Note 8 above at [117].


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