If something sounds too good or cheap to be true, there is every chance it is, and the same applies to legal services, according to national boutique law firm Parke Lawyers.
This means it is vital that consumers confirm their legal representative is a qualified lawyer, says Parke Lawyers Managing Director Jim Parke.
While that may sound like common sense, he says recent court decisions in Victoria show that unqualified people still pretend to be lawyers and represent clients, even though it is illegal – and the penalties for doing so can include heavy fines or jail.
In February 2012, the Federal Court was satisfied that litigants in a proceeding before it “were under the influence of a persuasive charlatan”. In 2014, the Herald-Sun reported that the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court had found that same man guilty of engaging in legal practice without being qualified to do so and fined him $10,000.
Mr Parke says that even reading the regulators’ publicly available information online shows that the problem of unqualified “lawyers” is more common than we might expect. He says that the Victorian Legal Service Board (VLSB) issued a warning to consumers at the end of April this year, when another person was found guilty on three charges and fined $1,500 in the Moorabbin Magistrates’ Court, after advertising legal services online without being qualified to do so and representing a parent in a family law matter . According to the VLSB, that matter involved parenting arrangements and consent orders for the client’s child.
Mr Parke says unqualified people pretending to be lawyers create problems for their own clients and themselves – and sometimes for third parties. Writing correspondence, or advertising on their websites, in a way that is intended to create the impression they are lawyers can mislead unwitting clients and cause unnecessary difficulties for other professionals who have to deal with a pretend lawyer.
Mr Parke says consumers should be cautious when engaging someone they find online to represent them in a legal matter, particularly if the person is not from a known law practice. He also warns of the risk of conveyancers who purport to give legal advice.
“Lower costs are attractive to all consumers, however unqualified people do not have the training, qualifications nor professional indemnity insurance that registered lawyers possess.”
Consumers are also not protected if things go wrong, and this can prove very costly, he adds.
Mr Parke advises that consumers check the website of the Victorian Legal Services Board – http://lsbc.vic.gov.au – to find out if the person or organisation they are thinking of engaging to represent them in any legal matter is entitled provide legal services.