Record fine for barrister's code breach

A prominent barrister has been fined $150,000 by a disciplinary tribunal for conduct which may bring the profession into disrepute.

Russell Coleman, 37, a former member of the Bar Council, was also censured by the barristers' disciplinary tribunal and ordered to pay costs.

The fine, believed to be the highest ordered by the tribunal, was imposed after the barrister admitted breaching the barristers' code of conduct by committing a criminal offence.

He pleaded guilty at Western Court last June to helping his domestic helper breach employment conditions and was fined $4,000 by a magistrate.

The tribunal, imposing the disciplinary penalties, said: 'We have come to the conclusion that Mr Coleman's behaviour at the very least showed a reckless indifference to the relevant provision of the Immigration Ordinance and to the possible consequences of such a breach.' But it decided not to suspend him because although it was a serious breach, the circumstances were exceptional.

The tribunal ordered that its findings be circulated to the Secretary for Justice, the Director of Legal Aid and the Law Society.

For the first time, it also said copies should be made available to the media on request.

Mr Coleman, a barrister since 1986, breached immigration laws by allowing his male domestic helper to work as a caretaker at the building where he lived in Bisney Road, Pok Fu Lam.

The tribunal accepted the barrister had originally only allowed the helper to take the job so he could use the guardhouse accommodation of the building.

But the job evolved into a caretaker role and he was paid $10,500 a month, with the cost shared between tenants of the building.

Gerard McCoy SC, for the Bar Council, said it had agreed to withdraw any allegations of dishonesty against Mr Coleman.

The tribunal was told by Graham Harris, for Mr Coleman, that the 'unfortunate events' had led to the barrister withdrawing his application to become a Senior Counsel last year. He had also stood down as a member of the Bar Council.

Mr Coleman had suffered adverse publicity, humiliation and 'become a victim of gossip and an object of ridicule', Mr Harris said.

Character references were provided by a High Court judge, a former chairman of the Bar Association, a former attorney-general and a former chairman of the Bar Disciplinary Committee.

The tribunal - Cheung Huan SC, Peter Callaghan and Professor Kenneth Young - accepted that the criminal conviction, by itself, would be 'a very severe punishment'.