Pretend “Gumtree” lawyer’s bark muzzled by court to the tune of $2500

Christine Smyth

Queensland’s peak legal body has fired a warning shot at uncertified “Gumtree’’ gun advisers after one was fined $2500 for advertising to give legal advice under the guise he was legally permitted to do so.

Christine Smyth, Queensland Law Society President said there was growing concern in the legal profession consumers are being duped into taking “cheap’’ or “free” advice via the internet or from lay advocates holding themselves out as qualified to give legal advice and assistance, putting at great risk the legal and financial security of everyday people.

“Beware of fraudsters who claim to be able to give legal advice,” Ms Smyth said.

“There seems to be a growing number of arm chair experts who are giving legal advice and services against the law, preying on the naivety of everyday people.”

Ms Smyth’s warning was highlighted in a recent West Australian Supreme Court decision – Van Der Feltz v Legal Practice Board (2017) — in which the court to slapped a $2500 fine on an uncertified person who advertised legal services via the Gumtree online website.

The court ruled: “Legal work can only be undertaken by a lawyer acting pursuant to the relevant Legal Profession Act in their state.”

Ms Smyth said the decision was a timely warning to anyone who may consider using anyone other than a fully qualified solicitor for legal advice.

“The Court was clear, any person claiming to have greater knowledge of the law and its procedures, than an ordinary citizen, and then gives legal advice and assistance, is committing an offence, if they are not a fully licensed Australian Legal Practitioner.”

“In Queensland a solicitor is required to hold a practising certificate to be legally allowed to give advice and anyone who wants to make sure their representative is certified can do so by contacting the Queensland Law Society or via its website,” Ms Smyth said.

“Unqualified people offering advocacy and document drafting services are offering legal work, even if they had a disclaimer on their website or expressly stated that the work wasn’t legal.

“The court has made it quite clear that if it walks like a lawyer and talks like a lawyer, it is pretending to be one.

“Some of these cases have ended in money not being refunded by the advisor, meaning the client then must incur further costs by hiring a real lawyer.”

Ms Smyth said other pitfalls in engaging an unqualified advisor included:

  • right to confidentiality is not guaranteed
  • right to privilege cannot be assured
  • unqualified practitioners cannot obtain insurance, while qualified solicitors are required to
  • and, non-certified practitioners are not bound by any codes of conduct or ethics.

“Having a qualified, educated and informed solicitor on your side will only assist you in your matter, whereas, an unqualified person is profiteering and opportunistically taking advantage of the innocent, often causing more trouble including higher costs,” Ms Smyth said.