The Offence of Engaging in Legal Practice Without Being Admitted as a Lawyer

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By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

What possessed Matthew Laba to pose as a registered Sydney criminal lawyer and represent four clients across four separate criminal cases in courts across the Greater Sydney region over a period of months, continues to remain a mystery.

Indeed, it’s been lost upon no one that the television series Suits, which ran its last episode in 2019, has a plotline similar to Laba’s criminal conduct, as it follows Mike Ross faking his way into a career as a lawyer. However, Laba’s ruse didn’t last multiple seasons like the television character.

Laba’s story came unstuck on 24 January 2023, when he was halfway through representing Bondi café owner Lucas Azzopardi in court, and the young man wasn’t able to produce his practising certificate when he was called upon to do so.

The then 29-year-old fake lawyer, who’d been working for Sydney firm Dib & Associates – a firm that perhaps should have taken a minute or two to check whether the person they were employing to represent their clients was actually an admitted lawyer – was queried regarding his certification just after having questioned a witness. Despite admitting to his conduct, Laba instead told Magistrate Rodney Brender that his certificate may have been suspended.

The Law Society of NSW, however, reported to the press later that same day that it had checked the register of solicitors that it’s required to keep, and Laba didn’t appear on it. The register lists all Australian lawyers with a practising certificate: a practitioner can’t practise in this state without one.

It all ended differently on the telly

Laba was at Downing Centre Local Court on 19 September last year, for a second court appearance, when it was suggested his matter may be resolved without prosecuting the six charges laid against him, as his lawyer was in discussions with the Law Society and had provided it with medical material.

The fake lawyer stood charged with four counts of entity engaging in legal practice when unqualified, contrary to section 10 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW). The maximum penalty that applies to this offence is a $27,500 fine and/or 2 years imprisonment.

Two counts of the offence of unqualified entity advertising legal services were the further charges the impersonator faced. And this crime is a contained in section 11 of the Uniform Law and carries with it a maximum penalty of a $27,500 fine.

On 6 November, Laba pleaded guilty to all six charges, and the NSW Law Society announced that “Laba does not hold, and has never held, a practising certificate issued by the Council of the Law Society of NSW, nor by any other issuing authority in any Australian jurisdiction”.

NSW Magistrate Daniel Covington sentenced Laba on 14 December, and he imposed a 9 month intensive correction order (ICO) to be concurrently served with an 18 month community correction order (CCO) and he was fined $16,000.

The ICO is a custodial sentence served in the community, while a CCO involves conditional release into the community. Both orders have a number of stipulations that must be abided by. 

A serious breach of the profession

“Lawyers in NSW are subject to stringent ethical obligations including the paramount duty to the administration of justice, duties to the court and to advancing clients’ interests above their own,” Law Society of NSW president Cassandra Banks said in a statement following the sentencing.

“The convictions and sentence imposed on Mr Laba today by the Local Court should serve as a deterrent to people tempted to engage in unqualified legal practice and/or falsely represent an entitlement to engage in legal practice,” she added.

The Law Society is co-regulator of the state’s solicitor profession, alongside the Office of the NSW Legal Services Commissioner. And Banks outlines that her association is responsible for protecting “the public and clients of law practices from unqualified persons engaging in legal practice”.

The president of the Law Society further pointed to the Register of Solicitors search engine that the professional association operates on its website, which allows people to search for practices and solicitors that hold valid practising certificates.

So, if one of Laba’s unsuspecting clients had searched him on the register, they would have found he wasn’t permitted to practise. And Banks underscored that “people in need of legal services have a right to expect that the person they have retained to provide those services is qualified to do so”.

When court imitates TV

But the people of NSW need not panic. As Magistrate Covington explained on sentencing the now 29-year-old Laba in mid-December, that his case posed a “unique set of circumstances”, as there was “no case law on a similar type of matter”, meaning this is the first time this had happened here.

Impersonating a lawyer seems to be unprecedented in terms of how far Laba was able to pull the wool over his clients’ eyes, as well as those of fellow lawyers, police officers, judges and magistrates, as he made representations and cross-examined in courts from Sutherland to Liverpool.

Covington also noted that there was a lot of interest in Laba’s case because of the similarity to the storyline in the US television series Suits, which has been having a resurgence in popularity on streaming services over recent years.

Suits follows the story of Mike Ross, who, due to his photographic memory is able to talk his way into a job at a top New York City law firm, despite not having graduated college, only to be discovered at the end of season 5 and arrested on fraud charges, later to be tried.

So, one can only presume that as Laba’s crimes have no precedent in NSW that the young man may have taken his lead from the character of Mike Ross, who certainly was able to forge quite a career over a number of years prior to his having been caught out.

“The community suffers because the justice system is put into disarray when people appear in court when they shouldn’t,” Magistrate Covington said as he sentenced Laba to community-served sentences. And his Honour added that the courts don’t have time to “google everybody’s name”.

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