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Canberra Today 7°/10° | Sunday, August 14, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Just outcomes and where to find them 

“Attorney and Client, fortitude and impatience”, an illustration by Hablot Browne for “Bleak House”, published in monthly parts, 1852-53.

“Even if you’re not a lawyer, it’s sometimes possible to conduct one’s own case to seek a just outcome. I’ve used the low-cost ACT and NSW small claims courts a few times,” writes “Whimsy” columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS.

BACK in the ’80s, I wrote a property conveyancing guide for the ACT that I published privately. 

Clive Williams.

Before doing so, I had bought and sold several properties in the ACT and found the process to be simple and straightforward, without the potential pitfalls that existed in NSW. 

I discovered that lawyers seldom did conveyancing themselves – it was usually delegated to a conveyancing clerk in the office with no more legal training than I had at that time. 

I was, of course, careful to add a disclaimer to my guide that it was not intended to be used as a guide, but only to provide information on the process involved! 

Nevertheless, feedback from those who used the guide confirmed that none of those who used it had any problems buying or selling their properties. 

There are times, of course, when it’s prudent to engage legal advice. In 2010, I paid a deposit on a flat in an old building being converted into flats in Sydney. 

The renovation process was delayed due to disputes between the builder, council and developer. In 2013, an American bank bought the mortgage and wrote to all those who had paid deposits on the flats saying that our contracts had been cancelled and our deposits would be refunded. 

I declined to accept my deposit back and engaged a high-profile property barrister who managed to get the bank to back off from taking over my flat. The bank later sold the rest of the resumed properties at a considerable profit. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement about the terms of my settlement – which is why I haven’t named the bank. 

Before engaging lawyers, it’s always worth exploring cost-effective alternatives (like mediation) to achieve a solution. 

Charles Dickens in his book “Bleak House” cites a fictional English probate case, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, concerning a large inheritance. The case drags on for many generations until legal costs eventually devour the whole estate, making a final verdict meaningless. Celebrity lawyers for Johnny Depp and Amber Heard have presumably enjoyed a similar lawyers’ feast. 

Even if you’re not a lawyer, it’s sometimes possible to conduct one’s own case to seek a just outcome. I’ve used the low-cost ACT and NSW small claims courts a few times – on one occasion to get a Sydney law firm to pay me money owed for a professional opinion and, on another occasion, to get a Canberra bank to repay me interest they charged me for not having settled a property on time. The delay was caused by the bank transferring all their ACT titles to Sydney and not being able to find the title in time to produce it at settlement. 

Many small claims cases do not get to court because the process makes a mediated outcome so much more likely. 

To close on a lighter note: A barrister is working late one night in his office when, suddenly, Satan appears before him. The Devil makes him an offer. “I can help you win every case for the rest of your life. Your clients will worship you, your colleagues will be in awe, and you will make enormous amounts of money. In return, you must give me your soul and the souls of all your relatives and friends.” 

The barrister thinks about it for a moment, and says: “What’s the catch?” 

Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist. There are more of his columns at


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Clive Williams

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