Andrew L. Urban.
The tumultuous end (in March 2021) to the latest appeal* against her murder conviction by Sue Neill-Fraser, was detonated by an unfulfilled undertaking from Stuart Wright, the lawyer assigned to key witness Meaghan Vass. Vass complained to Tasmania’s Legal Profession Board, whose dismissal of it (three months later), reveals the dismissal to have been based on a disturbing mischaracterisation of the complaint.
In the lead up to the March 1-3, 2021, appeal in Hobart’s Supreme Court, Meaghan Vass, her friend and support Andy Brown, and her newly attached lawyer Stuart Wright met. “It was me, him and Meaghan in the room,” Brown told us. “There was an affidavit from 2012, one from 2019, and all Meaghan said was, “Can you guarantee me, promise me that what’s said in these or mentioned about anything in these and the names will not get out to media and it will be kept in here?” He stood there with his one hand on one document, one hand on the other, leaned over the table, he goes, ‘I can 100% guarantee it, Megan.’”
Yet the headline on the front page of the next day’s Hobart Mercury proclaimed ‘SAM DID IT” – exactly what Vass was afraid of, her testimony revealing who she was with at the crime scene, on board the Four Winds yacht, making her feel like a target. The court issued a suppression order immediately, but of course, it was too late.
When we contacted Wright at the time, he declined to comment.
Brown (who jointly filed the complaint) had told the Legal Profession Board in her written reply to Wright’s defensive claims: “I received an email from the head reporter from the Hobart Mercury saying he had no idea why there wasn’t any suppression and it was a shock that the paper was allowed to print the names but then they had to recant later that evening. … Mr Wright single handedly unravelled that appeal by not protecting his client.”
The complaint to the Legal Profession Board was received March 9, 2021; the matter was heard on May 31, 2021, determined on June 7, 2021, and dismissed under S433 (1)(a) – as ‘misconceived’. We suggest it is the Board’s ‘Reasons’ that are misconceived. Below are the relevant paragraphs from the notice of dismissal of the appeal, followed by our responses:
39 – “There are no facts before the Board which could establish that the Practitioner was engaged by or on behalf of the Witness to attempt to control the publication of evidence which she might give in the course of the hearing.”
No, this is a disturbing mischaracterisation. The Practitioner was not expected to ‘control publication of evidence’; the Witness wanted an assurance that the names of those persons who the Witness was going to identify in court would not be made public. As the solicitor helping the Witness in court, the Practitioner was reasonably expected to act in a professional manner and to perform his service in accordance with court procedures. Suppression orders are fairly common and are not regarded as ‘controlling the publication of evidence’.
40 – “It is common ground that prior to the hearing the Complainant had asked the Practitioner whether the statutory declaration made by the Witness would be released by the Court. The Practitioner informed the Complainant that it would not be released. Even if that request was on behalf of the Witness rather than the Complainant, it did not extend to engagement with respect to the suppression of any evidence.”
No, this is also a disturbing mischaracterisation of the facts. The Practitioner gave “100% guarantee” that the names of those persons who the Witness was going to identify in court would not be made public.
41 – “Further, the material before the Board makes it clear that the only practitioners acting in that capacity before the Court, were those on behalf of the prosecution and of the defendant. The Practitioner was appointed to assist the Witness and the Court, The Practitioner was not entitled to, and had no standing to, make any application with respect to suppression of evidence.”
This reads like a transparent attempt to protect the Practitioner from the allegation of professional misconduct. The Board surely knows that as a professional solicitor, the Practitioner would recognise that to give effect to his undertaking he was required to advise the Witness’ instructing solicitor, Paul Galbally, of his undertaking to the Witness and to request Galbally (probably via Tom Percy QC representing Neill-Fraser) to put the request to the bench according to normal court procedures. And at no time did the Practitioner advise the Witness that he could not execute the task requested of him and which he agreed to execute with his own ‘100% guarantee’.
The Legal Profession Board’s submission seems to have made Stuart Wright, the Practitioner, appear dishonest, by claiming that he made a statement to the Witness that turned out to be fraudulent, accepting a task he was not able to carry out. That was not the allegation made against him. The allegation was that his failure to execute his ‘guarantee’ constituted unprofessional conduct. The LPB’s report compounds the actual error by disingenuous argument. In the Board’s attempt to justify the Practitioner’s conduct as professional, the Board has arguably underlined the complaint and undermined its own credibility.
* The appeal judges have reserved their decision to a date to be announced.