Remember Erin Brockovich? The 2000 film starring Julia Roberts as the titular legal secretary who fought evil big business and won financial compensation for the small Californian town of Hinkley, where residents suffered illness as a result of corporate pollution, was a box-office hit with Roberts winning the best actress Oscar.

The film kicked Julia Roberts’ and director Steven Soderbergh’s careers up to another level and provided a platform for the real-life Erin Brockovich to continue being an advocate for the little guys against big business. A decade later, it’s no surprise to see Brockovich still cashing in on her fame, by endorsing a Queensland firm of solicitors, Shine Lawyers, in a TV ad campaign.

Shine Lawyers is a “no win — no fees” personal injuries firm that specialises in litigation on behalf of individuals against corporations. Its website is dominated by Brockovich’s sales pitch, in which she states: “For over 15 years I’ve fought on behalf of innocent people who have suffered harm at the hands of irresponsible companies. Now I’m working with Shine Lawyers, a firm who shares my passion for taking on tough cases… I work with them and I trust them.”

It would appear to be the perfect match. Dig a little deeper though and another, less impressive, story also emerges.

In 2003, Shine Lawyers’ managing partner Stephen Roche was found guilty of professional misconduct by the Solicitors Complaints Tribunal and suspended from practice for 12 months. Shine Lawyers was then known as Shine Roche McGowan and Roche was suspended for overcharging a vulnerable client for legal services.

Despite agreeing to only charge a $395 flat administrative fee in a case where a complainant was suing for medical malpractice, $129,929 was billed “in respect of items of work of a clerical or secretarial nature involving no legal skill in respect of which no charge should have been made”. Notable examples including time charged for “wrapping a box of chocolates to be given to a reporting doctor’s secretary by way of thanks for facilitating the correcting of a report”. Time was also charged for discussing the buying of the gift.

Roche appealed but the Supreme Court of Queensland dismissed the action with the judgment and penalty standing. The court noted: “it is repugnant to think of a solicitor withholding detail from a client, precedent to an agreement, to the solicitor’s advantage and their client’s disadvantage” and “the fees charged by the respondent’s firm were exorbitant and well outside those charged by any reasonable practitioner”. The court noted Roche was “basically honest” but had an “apparent lack of contrition, and the absence of an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing”.

Brockovich indicated, via email, that she was “happy to talk” when initially contacted for comment, before falling silent. Strangely, an anonymous tip was received from someone who had apparently read the email correspondence advising: “Don’t hold your breath waiting for Erin or Shine to respond… Erin is happy as long as she is getting paid.”

Perhaps it is not so surprising. As far back as 2000, the year the film that literally made her name was released, Salon reported some Hinkley residents were questioning where some of their $US333 million settlement went, including $US10 million billed for unexplained expenses.

Journalist and attorney specialising in science and health issues Michael Fumento has also written a series of scathing articles, claiming Brockovich has “never crusaded for anything but lucre”.

To loosely paraphrase another Oscar-winning character, Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates delivered to a doctor’s secretary. Just make sure you know how much the legal bill is you’re going to get.

Peter Fray

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