This year marks the tenth anniversary of the made-for-tv series, Game of Thrones. When the upstanding and respected character, Ned Stark, loved by the people, lost his head early on in the first series, everyone was outraged and saddened that such a cruel turn of events would occur to such an admired character. It was the stuff that turned us into binge-watching couch potatoes, safely viewing humans at their most despicable, from the comfort of our lounges.
Ten years on and the world is a very different place now. One could be forgiven for thinking we are living in a GoT story-line, and now the story of Advocate Me has become compelling viewing for many.
Two hours after Serene Teffaha, principal of Advocate Me, filed proceedings for the Detention Towers class action in the Supreme Court of Victoria, the Victorian Legal Services Board issued her with a notice of intention to cancel her practicing license.
The basis of their claims are tied to two Family Court cases where Serene is representing vulnerable women on a pro-bono basis, these cases the subject of serious family violence and child sexual abuse. Serene called out what appears to be cover-ups of important disclosures and for this she is being accused of undermining the public's confidence in the administration of justice.
In addition, they took aim at public comments Serene made during a rally speech in December, particularly comments relating to corruption in the Family Court. Largely, they are claiming her comments are “baseless, inappropriate and undermining” of the justice system and warned there was no place for the claims, overlooking the fact that this is part of her job as a human rights lawyer. Otherwise, where is the accountability?
The VLSB demanded access to the details of the members of the National Class Action (‘NCA’), details of all barristers who agreed to the merits of her legal arguments for this action, plus the barristers signed up for the action.
In the process of defending herself, Serene refused demands that were unreasonable and likely to breach client confidentiality and the VLSB responded by cancelling her practicing license.
The VLSB has not cancelled her practicing certificate due to professional misconduct, but on the basis of allegations arising from certain interstate and national proceedings and public statements made. No client complaints have been made to the VLSB in relation to any action in which she is involved, whether on foot or pending.
Their action to cancel her license is disproportionate, but their pressure to access the client details seems to be their primary objective, which is deeply revealing.
The Detention Towers and the pending NCA class actions involves claims against all the State governments impugning the COVID-19 directions on Constitutional and other grounds. The members of these actions have been hurt by government overreach of powers and they do not want government cronies to access their information, let alone taking over these class actions in a clear conflict of interest. There are inherent protections for this, which the VLSB refuse to acknowledge.
All legal costs contributions received by the NCA members are held in a trust account, which was recently audited and approved by independent auditor. Serene has not drawn any amount from trust on account of her legal services rendered to date. In spite of this, the VLSB have frozen access to the trust and other bank accounts, without notice and without Court orders.
The NCA members are unwilling to have their personal details disclosed to third parties. The members are group members and want their identities strictly protected and Serene has promised to preserve their anonymity. This ultimately resulted in her practicing licensing being cancelled, because she did not comply with the VLSB’s unreasonable demands to provide them.
Prior to the cancellation, group members of the NCA instructed Serene to refund their legal cost contributions, and replace Serene, who is currently the solicitor on file, with one of our very trusted solicitors whom we have been working with already. This has already been done with the Detention Towers, ensuring it will continue. Instead, Serene will join the group as a group member in this class action. This would allow the class action to continue unimpeded.
While Serene has the right to appeal the decision for the insertion of a manager to step in, this was waived by an injunction order, which shocking went further asking the Court to gag Serene being an advocate for the people. Clearly a breach of human rights. Serene was not even made aware through proper process of this hearing and given very little time to prepare for it.
The judge presiding over the case granted little additional time and that hearing was conducted yesterday. While the plaintiffs had three of their barristers representing them, and more time to prepare, Serene had no time to attain proper representation and therefore represented herself. Significantly, the outcome of yesterdays hearing meant that the plaintiffs left with nothing more than they already had.
There are serious procedural issues with how Serene has been targeted and her right of review and appeal trampled on by the VLSB. They are operating outside the framework they should be, cherry picking sections from the Uniform Law to suit their ongoing onslaught and character assassination, because they don't have anything extenuating, such as misuse of trust money and client complaints to go by. All they can come up with are a couple of judges that were unhappy she challenged the decisions that put innocent people in harm’s way, some statements made in her December rally speech and unsubstantiated claims and what-ifs. Their response is completely disproportionate.
Yesterday’s win in her Supreme Court hearing was comprehensive and an adjournment was granted to allow her time to properly appeal. More importantly Justice Forbes denied their injunction to order Serene hand over client information. Showing this is not just about Serene, but it is about all of us. In short, Serene had her license cancelled because she refused to give the VLSB access to the class action participants.
If this does not prove her integrity, strength of character and legal skills, then I don't know what will.
She has been practical in what information she has provided them, but there is a legal argument about the privacy of class action members under these circumstances, and this must be allowed play out properly. The ambush and pressure tactics used by the VLSB to force Serene to submit to their demands for this data are shocking, but Serene has upheld her end of the bargain to protect her members. Now it is time to uphold our end and support her, by staying the course with her.
Many supporters have written complaints to the VLSB, Victorian Ombudsman and Hall & Wilcox, the firm inserted as new managers. Many Affidavits in support are currently being prepared for use in her appeal. If you would like to come forward to provide your support in this way, we encourage you to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The situation is changing daily, as the tactics of the VLSB to bully her increase in intensity. But Justice Forbes was sensible yesterday in her decision to grant Serene time to appeal, confirming what Serene said in her rally speech about the Supreme Court.
This effort by the VLSB seems nothing more than a witch hunt and a means to gain access to the class action data. In fact, they want all her data, quite possibly because she has been collating many cases of corruption in the Family Court and is planning to do a Peoples Commission on this. That and the strong legal merits of her class actions are a serious threat to the public's confidence in government and the judicial system.
Exposing their corruption is all Serene is guilty of here, and this has caused them to be fearful. Fearful that the public confidence in the administration of government and some of the judiciary will be seriously diminished. But it is too late for that, we already know where the system is broken. That horse has already bolted.
If all our binge-watching of ten seasons of Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it is that the pursuit of power can be all consuming. And those in power will do anything to hold onto it. They use guilt and fear to disarm you, but we also learnt they too have fear. Fear of losing their power and retribution for their actions.
Let them be afraid and have no fear yourself, for that is what they want. Fear is what holds us back from doing what is right and while we continue to be held back, they push forward their agenda, increasingly at our peril. The group collective is strong, and they know it. So, there is no better time than now, to stand together. Strength and safety in numbers.
While new episodes of Advocate Me may come to you faster than GoT did, this is real life and real battles are taking place. This is not the time to be a couch potatoe if you want change. If the pen is your sword, pick it up and write to your local member, the ombudsman, the VLSB, the judges and the media. Have resolve and patience for we are in the battle now and we have the numbers and the truth on our side. Stay firm and stay strong.