Bullfry goes pro bono

When he was a young solicitor, Bullfry had attended each week at an inner-City legal centre to provide a pro bono service, advising a mixed clientele.

In those far-off days, such pro bono work was something to be done privately, not offered on a firm-wide basis with a partner in charge of it. Now, there is invariably a national co-ordinating partner, and an endless supply of young devotees, lured at the brown-bag lunch with thoughts of more complex, and exciting matters, than ensuring an accurate PPSR filing!

Advising then was not without its complications. One evening, a man, his face rubicund from devoted attention to detail at a local brewery, arrived to seek his urgent counsel. In giving it, Bullfry always remembered, and tried to follow, the sage advice of Sir John Simon to young barristers – “You must give your advice to people much older than yourself without pomposity or apology”.

“It’s only a simple question Mr Bullfry”, the client had asked with a disingenuous smile. “What level of fire damage to a suburban garage would not attract a coronial inquest?”

Bullfry had hesitated long before replying.

Years later, while on the speaker phone to attorneys in an 'off-shore' jurisdiction, Bullfry had faced a similar conundrum when a foreign adviser suggested 'lobbying' one of the judges who was hearing the matter.

Then, as always, he had followed the wise precept that informed much of his approach to an advice in Equity: “What would your mother think about this?” He had no doubt that his own matriarch, steeped in the teachings of the Presbyterian Church, would counsel against any action which savoured of bribing a foreign judicial officer, or condoning a modest arson.

Sometimes a pro bono request might arrive because of some other case. Bullfry had achieved a significant victory on behalf of a tenant who had been induced, with the usual honeyed blandishments from the leasing agent, Mr Hodges, to enter a lease in an incompletely tenanted, and underadvertised shopping centre. Three weeks after opening for business, armed robbers had entered the premises and terrified the wife and niece of the lessee who had promptly shut up shop; unlike much of Bullfry’s client base, money was a matter of indifference to the tenant. The matter went to mediation, but nothing was forthcoming by way of an offer of settlement. Later, in conference, the wealthy client (who hailed from a jurisdiction to Australia’s North) said to him simply:

“Mr Bullfry, they have offered me nothing. I would have accepted a small gift or a cup of tea – you must sue them for everything I have lost”.

Shortly after a successful result at trial, Bullfry was approached to assist, pro bono, another tenant who had failed in his endeavours to run an ethnic restaurant in the same centre. The solicitor for the defaulting landlords came on the phone, demanding politely payment of rental arrears, and guaranteed payments for the Mexican café.

Bullfry said simply, “Pam, I have already cross-examined Mr Hodges and the poor man can’t lie straight in bed! Give me 50 grand and a release and indemnity by lunch time and we can resolve the matter”.

And thus the forensic side of the matter concluded. In chambers, a grateful client (Mr Wong) gave Bullfry a Myers voucher for the first Mrs Bullfry which he translated into a pair of slippers.

There were, of course, latent dangers for the neophyte in acting pro bono. To begin, there is usually no solicitor involved which removes that vital but often neglected demarcation between the respective roles of barrister and instructor which protected the mutual interests of them both. A barrister only infrequently makes a detailed file note as he proceeds.

As well, pro bono clients often (as discussed below) get the wrong end of the forensic stick and think that any harum-scarum argument can and should be run. Then, if pro bono counsel wishes to withdraw, 'difficulties' (to say the least of it) can arise. Once Bullfry was confronted with the possibility of a 'thrown away' costs order sought by the lender when a trial could not proceed; fortunately, the vastly experienced Commercial Judge saw that what had occurred involved no fault on the part of Bullfry – but it is unnerving to be potentially castigated for an act of kindness!

And one had to be careful with the Bar Association’s 'offerings' – what might be 'sold' to you as a pro bono matter which would take but an hour or two – 'it’s just a short notice of motion on discovery for the borrower' – could, on from time to time, turn into a full-blown hearing which then morphed into protracted settlement negotiations.

On one such occasion Bullfry had found himself sequestered without the benefit of an instructing solicitor with an overborrowed customer from the furthest rural region of the State who seemed, initially, to want to invoke all the 'usual defences' which should not be run by a litigant in person.

You know the usual ones: the Bank does not exist legally; all lending is controlled by a nefarious cabal of Freemasons and Presbyterians; the promissory note offered in 'payment' discharged the 'debt'; the shadow ledger showed the debt had been written off – the potential list is endless and growing, and apparently augmented by a scurrilous mob of McKenzie friends who roam the courts of the Commonwealth before being struck down as vexatious litigants.

After about an hour and a half of colloquy, Bullfry managed to persuade his advisee of the unwisdom of advancing any of the non-defences available, and to focus on how best to negotiate a reasonable settlement. After lengthy discussion (which involved the client’s daughter), and the assistance of a most reasonable approach by the Bank’s counsel (a seasoned operator who did not need to take the falsely hairy-chested approach of so many callow 'lending juniors'), all was mutually resolved to everyone’s mutual dissatisfaction.

A happy client then raised with Bullfry how counsel was to be remunerated for the two days the matter had taken to resolve.

“No, no – I can’t accept any payment – this is a service provided by the Bar Association”, said Bullfry.

“That is very generous indeed,” said his client.

Then, with a prescient look in his eyes, he added:

“Well just remember, Mr Bullfry, – when the time comes and you need somewhere to hide, you know where to come!”