Monday, July 05, 2004

Junketing judges and barristers?

For the last two days, the Oz has been running a campaign against the generous taxpayer subsidising of overseas travel by Australian judges, and to a lesser extent, Australian barristers. To the extent that the Oz really has anything of substance to devote a couple of front page splashes to – and personally I think that the Oz is axe-grinding in the extreme – they have got their priorities reversed. On other words, if there is to be a story here at all, it should be about the illegitimate claiming of ostensibly work-related tax deductions by barristers. (This is not an issue for Australian judges, because they get automatic 100% reimbursement for travel work-related and otherwise).

So – and bearing in mind that I don’t think the issue is even in the top 100 of pressing national concerns – why is it that the barristers and not the judges, who are the main wrongdoers? My answer, in part: because the just-finished Australian Bar Association biennial conference in Florence fails – of should fail – the work-related nexus test of tax law, certainly inasmuch as conference expenses other than registration (travel, accommodation, meals) being 100% deductible goes.

The fact is this: the ABA conference entailed a total of 11 hours of seminars (work-related, one assumes) over four days, with the balance of the period either occupied by social formalities, or left for delegates to do with as they wish. Therefore, the ATO should insist on the apportionment all barristers’ claims for this conference accordingly; I suggest that a 40% work-related component for accommodation and meals over the four days would be a reasonable figure. For travel/airfares, this figure should be lower if there was any before/after-conference touring done by delegates.

Otherwise, it is fair to observe that the stated justifications for holding the conference in palatial (literally) Florence are, to put it kindly, obiter dicta (or, as I prefer, “bullshit”):

Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey . . . said Australian lawyers and judges gained "the company of other like-minded people who are interested in personal and professional development", and the chance to meet foreign colleagues. I think nothing beats being on the spot and being able to ask questions and listen to the way papers are delivered, and to talk during the breaks with lots of people from other jurisdictions."

ABA president Ian Harrison QC said Australian lawyers needed to travel to study foreign legal regimes, "cross-fertilise" with others and avoid becoming insular and isolated. "This is not just some tax-driven perk by wealthy lawyers who choose to come here [Florence] for their own personal benefit”.

Oh yeah? Why then were there only 17 non-Australians among the 271 registered conference delegates? (same URL) I’m not saying that bona-fide, internationally-oriented law conferences aren’t a good thing, nor that they never happen – it’s just that the recent ABA escapade in Florence was plainly not one of them.

As for the judges, I put them in a category of lesser-culpability for three reasons. One is that they get unlimited – work-related or not – global travel as part of the job; therefore there is nothing, other than appearances, which inclines them to attend conferences-lite as opposed to going on holidays simpliciter. Secondly, the judges named by the Oz are very far, IMO, from abusing, as a matter of fact, their admittedly generous first-class global travel “gold passes”. The biggest spender among them racked up a $44,500 bill (including spouse) in the last year. Considering what first-class airfares (and equivalent accommodation) cost, this figure strikes me as being on the parsimonious side, if anything. (Personally, there’s no way I – and friend – would take a four-week globe-trotting holiday on a “gold pass” basis for less than $A1,000 per day, plus airfares – meaning a total bill upwards of $70,000 – and this figure allows only $20,000 each for first-class airfares).

Finally – and probably most importantly – in a democracy, judges should not be flippantly or maliciously criticised; and the Oz’s recent campaign appears to be doing both. So what if Justice Ian Callinan “stayed at the luxurious $350-a-night waterfront Table Bay Hotel” in Cape Town, “which looks out to notorious Robben Island, the maximum-security jail for political prisoners that housed Nelson Mandela during apartheid”? And given the blowtorch that’s been previously applied to the private life of Justice Michael Kirby, the detail that he and partner “spent a night at Hollywood's famous Roosevelt Hotel before flying home to Sydney” (same URL) is prurient, gutter journalism. That “Justice Gleeson declined to respond personally to the figures, but the court's official spokesperson provided a "no comment" answer to questions asking them to justify the cost of such travel” (same URL) brims with sleazy innuendo – as far as I can tell, there is nothing to justify.

Oh, and speaking of the gutter – to Oz High Court reporter, Louise Milligan, it might help you in your job if you had some elementary legal knowledge. Comparing the ABA biennial conference to NSW Bar continuing professional development conferences et al is comparing apples and oranges. I can’t be bothered explaining why – but any practising lawyer will be able to set you straight. Otherwise, if News Ltd flies me to a junket in Florence – just like they apparently flew you (or were you just faking it, and letting base jealousy subsitute for journalism?) – I’m willing to give up the secret.

Correction 11 July 2004

I don’t have the time/inclination to check the veracity of this report in the Oz. Taking it at face value, though, I was wrong to suggest, as I did, that the ABA’s recent Florentine adventure was not to be confused with Continuing Professional Development-type conferences/seminars.

Apparently, they indeed do do things differently in Queensland, and Brisbane barrister/conference-planner Lorenzo Boccabella is complicit in some quite serious rorting – both of tax laws and of the bona fides of professionally-mandatory continuing legal education programs. It is to the discredit of the ABA – and now also, it seems, the International Bar Association – that they should choose to sully their reputations by doing business with such a naked shyster.

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