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In his Opening of Law Term Dinner speech in 2006, Spigelman CJ noted: "Ours is a profession of words.  We must continue to express ourselves in a way that demonstrates respect for others." 

At that time his Honour felt the Australian legal profession was not facing a “crisis of civility.”  Unfortunately, the discourteous and aggressive tone of correspondence between some lawyers has substantially increased.  

The 2007 Solicitors Conduct Rules required that a practitioner’s communications be courteous and avoid “offensive and provocative language….”  While no longer a specific requirement, the need for respect in communicating with opponents finds expression in one of the fundamental duties in the 2015 Conduct Rules – the obligation to be “honest and courteous in all dealings in the course of legal practice.” 

No decent lawyer would ever consider using the vile racial insults the subject of disciplinary findings against a solicitor in the Karageorge case.  But overzealous pursuit of their clients’ interests can lead solicitors astray.  Here are some words recently used by practitioners describing their professional colleagues: 

  • Disingenuous  
  • Mischievous 
  • Egregious
  • Misleading
  • Specious
  • Ineptitude

 Perhaps those words were justified but their use does not obviously comport with the obligation to show our professional peers “civility, trust and mutual respect.” 

Perhaps the ubiquity of social media and the rise of keyboard warriors is reshaping communication.  But as Spigelman CJ noted in 2006, the tradition of civility in the law is maintained “to a greater degree than other areas of social discourse.”   

It is trite to observe that correspondence should be drafted as if it will be scrutinised by a court.  But numerous cases indicate that lawyers sometimes ignore that warning – resulting in “correction by the court and disapprobation of their colleagues.” 

As has been said: 

“Civility within the legal system not only holds the profession together, but also contributes to the continuation of a just society … Conduct that may be characterized as uncivil, abrasive, hostile, or obstructive necessarily impedes the goal of resolving conflicts rationally, peacefully, and efficiently, in turn delaying or even denying justice.” 

While a judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, Edelman J noted: 

Other legal representatives in the course of practice, whether opposed or not, should always be treated with respect, dignity, and occasionally admiration (even if the language of respect has today become merely a forensic label).  This is never inconsistent with the vigorous, even forceful, prosecution of a client’s interests. 

At a time where personal contact and mutual understanding between lawyers has reduced due to Covid related restrictions, and our opponents are often faceless names behind an email signature block, it is well to remind ourselves that civility is an essential element of our profession.