By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
A barrister since 1995, Michael Rollinson received an email from the NSW Bar Association on 2 July 2021 directing him to cease practising as he’d failed to pay the full fees to annually renew his practising certificate. He was told that if he didn’t stop, he’d be in breach of the Legal Profession Uniform Law 2014 (NSW).
Rollinson replied on 22 July, stating he’d paid all his fees. He attached his application form for his certificate. He also supplied a statutory declaration stating he’d been practising around 1 July, which is the start of the new practising year. This prompted the Bar Association’s professional conduct director to request further details.
Along with asking for more information about the disclosure, the director made clear that Rollinson was not to engage in any legal practice until he’d received his certificate, including advertising his services, representing or anything else that implied he was entitled to work as a lawyer.
Rollinson provided the professional conduct director with a letter dated 23 July outlining the work he had been performing around 1 July. Three days later, the barrister sent a second document detailing the legal work he’d been conducting since that time.
The NSW Bar Association summoned Rollinson before Justice Richard Button in the NSW Supreme Court on 6 August 2021, where the barrister appeared via telephone.
Justice Button declared that Rollinson could not engage in legal practice, advertise or make representations that he was entitled to work as a lawyer and that he must take steps to have his details removed from the Latham Chambers website.
The day before this directive, Rollinson served an affidavit of an Andreas Haeger and an exhibit in a case referred to as the Stanizzo appeal. Then, on 10 August, the barrister emailed a four page submission to the appeals court in relation to Stanizzo, using his Latham Chambers email address.
Rollinson then appeared before Justice Helen Wilson on 16 August, where she was told about the affidavit he’d served at the Stanizzo appeal, as well as that he was continuing to use an email address associated with Latham Chambers.
As a result, Her Honour filed an injunction under section 477(3) of the Legal Profession Uniform Law, restraining Rollinson from engaging in legal practice, advertising, representing or implying he was able to practice, and to desist from having his contact details associated with Latham Chambers.
When you just can’t stop
Despite all of this, Rollinson sent an email on 23 August to the registrar charged with the Stanizzo case, which included two prior judgements that held relevance to the current case, he enquired whether he needed a notice of motion to take the matter further, and he also used the same email address.
The Stanizzo appeal concluded on 3 September. Yet, Rollinson continued to advise Stanizzo on seeking special leave to appeal to the High Court. And he also called another solicitor and during the conversation claimed he was still a practising barrister representing his client.
Rollinson didn’t stop there, however. He commenced proceedings against a company called Style Investments on behalf of Vinja Holdings, a company owned by Stanizzo. And the barrister under the injunction began a back and forth with the High Court in relation to seeking leave to appeal.
The NSW Bar filed a summons on 16 September in relation to Rollinson’s breaching of his injunction. The proceedings were to deliberate upon his actions up until the 16th, but by the time the proceedings took place the period had been extended to 29 September.
And on 20 October, Rollinson appeared at a directions hearing in relation to another matter, where he claimed he was there in place of another solicitor who couldn’t make it, and since the opposing lawyer had no objection the matter proceeded.
Rollinson appeared via audio-visual link before the NSW Supreme Court Common Law Duty Judge Stephen Campbell on 16 September last year and was charged with three counts of contempt of court, contrary section 24 of the Local Court Act 2007 (NSW).
These charges related to the breaching of the three main injunction points to stop practising as a lawyer, to stop making representations that he was able to do so, and to stop referring to himself in relation to Latham Chambers.
Section 55.13 of the Supreme Court Rules 1970 stipulates that when it comes to contempt of court, and the contemnor is not a corporation, “the Court may punish contempt by committal to a correctional centre or fine or both”.
Rollinson went on to plead guilty to all three charges on 29 October last year.
The underlying circumstances
The barred barrister went before the NSW Supreme Court on 22 March this year.
Chief Justice at Common Law Robert Beech-Jones explained that there was contention around whether Rollinson had entered early guilty pleas. But since the offender had never been asked to enter them in the first place, they were considered early.
Rollinson told the court that over the last three years his financial situation had been declining due to a reduction in work, which was only compounded by the pandemic, and when it came to having to pay his practising certificate fees, his funds were almost depleted.
The offender said he realised he should have stopped working under such circumstances but didn’t feel he was financially able to, and even after the injunction, Stanizzo had continued to contact him in regard to his case and also for advice. Rollinson also formally apologised to the court.
“Grave instances of contempt”
Overall, his conduct reveals a breathtaking and flagrant disregard for this Court’s authority,” Justice Beech-Jones said.
“His actions involved most aspects of the practice of a barrister including the provision of legal advice to a client, communicating with other legal practitioners and the Court, drafting submissions and other court documents and appearing in Court.”
His Honour found that Rollinson seemed to be most concerned with saving face in front of his clients and even with himself. And he added that in cases like these specific and general deterrence both weigh heavily on sentencing.
On 8 April 2022, Justice Beech-Jones ordered that Rollinson be sentenced to 9 months imprisonment.
However, as the Supreme Court Rules permit, his Honour suspended the sentence on the proviso that Rollinson follows the stipulation of the original injunction made against him for the period of the next three years.