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Hellfire Club
24 September, 2008  
Insightlessness at the bar

The Alex Howen case is a striking illustration of a mentally disordered barrister who ploughs on without adequate treatment, leaving a trail of professional misery. How many others can identify with Howen’s Disorder?

imageThere was much wailing when word spread through the Street of Shame that one-time Liberal Party luminary Alexander Stanislaw Howen had been tossed off the jam roll and had his ticket torn up by the Bureau de Spank.

Howen was widely adored at the NSW bar and nary a dry eye could be found when the ADT put on the black cap and pronounced the death penalty.

The offences seem trifling: failure to respond in time to client Michael Iverson’s instructions to commence proceedings in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission; and preferring his own interests to those of his client.

Iverson made it clear to Howen on 13 occasions that he wanted to get cracking with his application for reinstatement of his job with Qantas.

Iverson was terminated on April 28, 1999, but his AIRC application wasn’t filed until November 23, seven months later, which is slightly more than the 21-day deadline for filing.

The trouble was that in applying for an extension of time Howen told Commissioner Frank Raffaelli that the delay was due to his client’s depressed mental state.

The barrister implied that Iverson had not given instructions to commence proceedings and was not keen to get involved in litigation because of a concern about the effect the case would have on his health.

imageThis was false, to Howen’s (pic) knowledge.

In August 2001 the full bench of the AIRC allowed Iverson’s appeal on the ground of “representative error”.

The Administrative Decisions Tribunal thought Howen’s conduct would be regarded by his colleagues as disgraceful and dishonourable, and that this amounted to prof. misconduct.

There was another finding of professional misconduct in May this year after it was found that Howen had failed to respond to the Bar ‘n’ Grill’s requests for information and documents.

Between the findings of prof. misconduct in May and the penalty being handed down this month various of Howen’s cases were in a state of uncertainty.

A trial of three Zambians on charges of assault was set down before Judge Greg Hosking in the Dizzo in August.

The crown applied for an adjournment because of the possibility that defence counsel would be de-frocked mid-proceedings.

Hosking wisely stood the trial over till November 17.

The penalty judgment from the ADT, which emerged on September 4, is full of psychiatric data that might disturb the community’s abiding faith in the wholesomeness of the bar.

Dr Jonathan Phillips’ report on June 26, 2008 said that Howen had “considerable difficulty marshalling information and presenting a history that could be understood by someone else; his cognition was otherwise generally impaired”.

Just the qualities people are looking for in a brief.

The famous Dr Robert Hampshire, in his report on July 31, 2003, said that the barrister had an adjustment disorder with severely depressed mood and episodic panic attacks. This probably arose in 1994 and after subsiding for a while worsened in 1999.

He had problems “managing his external life events”. He further found that the respondent “in some ways … is an insightless man”.

Dr Yvonne Skinner reported on July 19, 2003. She did not think Howen required psychiatric or psychological treatment.

In her view his failure to deal with issues raised by the Bar Association had more to do with “personality factors” rather than an underlying psychiatric disorder.

“He has personality traits that render him particularly sensitive to criticism, and the psychological defence mechanisms that are part of his personality structure cause him to react to criticism with extreme anger. As personality factors are deeply ingrained and enduring, Mr Howen would be prone to develop a similar problem in the future if he is faced with significant stress.”

Doc Phillips thought it was highly likely the poor fellow had been “incapacitated in his professional life” from at least 1990.

Where was BarCare in the moment of need?

Apparently the bar’s therapy unit arranged for Howen to have consultations with a couple of psychologists. He had 21 sessions with one of them, but said the treatment had not assisted him.

Given Howen’s “poor compliance with mental health assessment” the Bureau doubted whether he’d persist with his treatment.

The uncertainty was too much, and there was the protection of the hapless punters to think of.

There was also the matter of a few priors.

  • The Leech complaint. Findings of failure to draft documents, confer with client, attend court mentions and reply to client communications. He was reprimanded by the Prez of the Grill.
  • Howen’s delay in notifying the grill that he was bankrupt. His ticket was suspended but the Supreme Court kindly restored it in March 2003.
  • There were two findings of prof misconduct in October 2003 for failure to comply with the bar’s notices for information and documents. He was publicly reprimanded by the ADT.
  • Also in October 2003 the ADT also thought there had been an instance of unsatisfactory professional misconduct arising from failures to provide chamber work, return a brief, and communicate with instructing solicitors. Publicly reprimanded.

    How many of us see looming symptoms of Howen’s Disorder?


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