Australia Watchdog cancels licence of lawyer leading tower lockdown lawsuit

11:16  15 april  2021
11:16  15 april  2021 Source:   theage.com.au

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  Watchdog cancels licence of lawyer leading tower lockdown lawsuit © Shutterstock

A lawyer who filed a class action lawsuit over the mandatory coronavirus lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne has had her licence cancelled by the state's Legal Services Board.

The board confirmed it had cancelled the licence of solicitor Serene Teffaha, saying the Melbourne lawyer no longer has a practising certificate and cannot engage in legal practice.

Ms Teffaha has vowed to fight the decision.

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Hall & Wilcox partner Jacob Uljans has been appointed by the board to manage the litigation and has taken over the operational responsibilities for Ms Teffaha's Preston law firm, Advocate Me, the board said.

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Mr Uljans' appointment is for six months.

On Monday The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the watchdog had written to Ms Teffaha in March to provide her with a "notice of proposed cancellation of practising certificate".

The notice was sent at about the same time that Ms Teffaha filed the class action on behalf of thousands of public housing tenants subjected to the hard lockdown that confined them to their homes in July 2020.

The board has not said what led to the cancellation of Ms Teffaha's licence.

The lawyer had been seeking clients for a range of class action that covered people affected by various COVID-19 measures, including any form of detention, mandatory vaccination, business closure, isolation in residential aged care, cross-border rules and contact tracing.

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On Monday, Ms Teffaha said losing her licence would not affect the class action, and that she had written a whistleblower complaint against the legal watchdog for what she considered to be the targeting of her litigation.

Ms Teffaha said she had never had any clients complain about her.

She has at different times offered criticism on social media of government programs and institutions, including a dispute with members of the judiciary. She said her previous activism included advocating for survivors of child sexual abuse and family violence, government transparency and whistleblowers.

On Thursday, Ms Teffaha labelled the board's decision as "unlawful" and said her clients "do not accept any government regulator intervention".

Ms Teffaha said the decision disregarded the whistleblower complaints placed against the board by herself and her clients.

She has vowed to fight the decision.

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Court documents filed by Ms Teffaha name two prominent Victorian Health Department officials - Annaliese van Diemen and Finn Romanes - as well as Police Commissioner Shane Patton and the state as defendants.

The class action claims to represent all 3000 people subjected to the compulsory lockdown.

The lawsuit, fronted by plaintiff Idris Hassan, alleges the detention of people in the towers was unlawful and beyond the powers conferred under state government legislation to manage the pandemic.

Mr Hassan said he has no concerns about the litigation proceeding.

Members are seeking damages for false imprisonment, battery, assault, negligence, aggravated and exemplary damages and costs, as well as declarations that the state government and police actions were unlawful.

Ms Teffaha rose to prominence as a member of anti-lockdown campaigns.

A senior member of the Family Court of Australia, deputy principal registrar Virginia Wilson, sent a letter to the Victorian Legal Services Board in January about Ms Teffaha's conduct in a family law case when Justice Kirsty Marion Macmillan took the unusual step of restraining Ms Teffaha from representing her own client.

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Deputy Chief Magistrate of the Queensland Magistrates Court Anthony Gett referred Ms Teffaha to the Legal Services Commission in Queensland during a hearing in open court.

In January, Ms Teffaha said the Family Court had "many corruption issues", which prompted condemnation from the Australian Bar Association and the Law Council. They said her comments were "baseless, inappropriate and undermining" of the criminal justice system and warned there was no place for the claims.

Ms Teffaha accused the judges of perverting the course of justice.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found the government's decision to immediately lock down the towers violated the human rights of tenants, who were not given a chance to prepare for restrictions, while the rest of the state was given a chance to prepare for restrictions.

Dr van Diemen, who was the most senior public health official on the day of the decision, told Ms Glass she was "quite terrified ... that we would see within a week many hundreds of [COVID-19] cases", but that delaying a day would not have made "a hugely significant difference".

Chair of the Victorian Bar Class Actions Section, Lachlan Armstrong, QC, said that the class action would likely continue but that there might be some complications.

"I'm pretty confident it hasn't happened before," Mr Armstong said.

"Ordinarily the client's action would continue. The clients would need to find a new lawyer to run the case. In a large class action that might not be straightforward."

The class action has not yet been listed for a hearing date.

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