Struck off ... Russell Keddie. Photo: Nick Moir
When something horrible happens, the blame game swings into action.
In an institutional or professional setting, it works like this: the boss says he's not responsible, and that number two is responsible. Number two says, ''I'm not responsible, the secretary is responsible.'' When that looks a bit thin, then it's the ''system'' - the ''system is responsible''.
In other words, no one is responsible. The cause of the problem is remotely diffuse and can't be fingered.
This position is persisted with until all options become closed, the culprits have their backs to the wall, the net tightens, future prospects are threatened and huge penalties loom. Only then, usually years after the event, does someone put their hand up and take a hit.
So it was with the protracted Keddies law firm overcharging affair.
This newspaper broke the story in June 2008. Proceedings against the partners of the firm, which had been the biggest personal injury practice in the state, were launched by the legal profession regulator, Steve Mark, in May 2009.
Here we are three years later with a finding that Russell Keddie be struck off the roll - after a mind-numbing 16 appearances before the Administrative Decisions Tribunal for directions plus many more procedural applications.
It's hardly a triumph for the system that is supposed to police wayward lawyers. By the time the findings and orders of the Administrative Decisions Tribunal were handed down on Monday, Keddie was safely tucked up with his millions from the sale of his firm last year, had admitted responsibility for gross overcharging and promised that he would not again be applying for a ticket to practise law.
Why would he need to?
His two former partners, Scott Roulstone, a former vice-president of the NSW Law Society, and Tony Barakat, are off the hook, the case against them having been dropped because Keddie fell on his sword. They are still practising as lawyers.
At the end of the day, the joint and several liability of partnerships doesn't seem to count for much.
The process before the tribunal was hardly satisfactory. At the 11th hour an agreed statement of facts was produced, where the legal services commissioner accepted admissions made by Keddie and his employed solicitor Philip Scroope. Keddie did not give evidence, so none of the ''facts'' could be tested to see whether they were pitched too softly.
And it should not be forgotten that the regulator's complaints against Keddie and Scroope were in relation to one case of overcharging only. This was the case of Mrs Meng, her husband and son, who had been injured in a bus accident.
The Meng case was settled before trial for $3.5 million, total costs billed were $557,832 for Keddies and disbursements of $261,863 to $819,698 in total. The agreed statement of facts said that a fair and reasonable professional cost for the Meng matter, including the 25 per cent fee uplift for a good result, ex-GST, would be $273,595.63 - not the $507,119.84 ex-GST actually billed by the firm.
In other words, not taking into account the disbursements (barristers and expenses for specialists), Mrs Meng was overbilled about $215,000. Her ''narrative'' bill was 132 pages long and contained approximately 1766 items. And this for a case in which there was no trial.
Even $273,595 seems too high, as other costs experts have estimated Keddies's bill was 10 times what was reasonable. In order to get the agreed statement of facts before the tribunal the reports of costs experts were excluded from the proceedings altogether.
In the District Court there are more than 100 overcharging cases against the old Keddies partnership. In recent months, 23 of them have been settled and judgments entered. Those verdicts total $3.4 million. Despite having millions at their disposal, the three former partners put on affidavits about their financial position, seeking to pay off the verdicts over time.
When solicitors for those plaintiffs wanted to have the three partners cross-examined on the contents of their affidavits, they withdrew their application for time payment. Throughout this entire saga, the Keddies Three have never given evidence nor been subject to cross examination.
The claim that the ''system'' is at fault should not be dismissed out of hand. After all, this is the system that allows solicitors to charge in six-minute units so that they can bill 1/10th of an hour for something that might only take a few seconds. Telephone calls that are not answered and take a few moments are billed for six minutes. Three of those calls is 18 minutes, when in reality it might be a minute of time in the real world. At $300 an hour, that means $90 worth of unanswered phone calls.
Despite hand-wringing from chief justices and other worthies, nothing is done. Why would anything be done when a system provides a magnificent golden egg?
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