The Victorian Legal Services Board initiates investigation into Veronica Nelson’s lawyer following a coronial request

The head of the Victorian Legal Services Board has initiated a complaint and investigation into the conduct of a lawyer engaged to assist Aboriginal woman Veronica Nelson, who died in custody.

NOTE: The family of Veronica Nelson has been granted permission to use her name and image.

Melbourne barrister Tass Antos was engaged by the Law and Advocacy Center for Women to assist Ms Nelson after she was arrested for shoplifting-related offences.

The 37-year-old Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman died alone in her cell in a Melbourne prison on January 2, 2020.

Ms Nelson had represented herself in court at a hearing where she was refused bail in the days before her death, which coroner Simon McGregor described as “preventable”.

Handing down his findings in January, Coroner McGregor criticized Mr Antos, describing the legal service he provided as “inadequate”.

The coroner hands down the findings of an inquiry into Veronica Nelson's death
Coroner Simon McGregor found Mr Antos fell “short of the standard expected of a legal practitioner”.

In a statement, the Victorian Legal Services Board commissioner and CEO, Fiona McLeay, said calls to investigate Mr Antos’ legal conduct came after Coroner McGregor’s findings.

“As the regulator of the legal profession in Victoria, we believe everyone who exercises their basic right to have legal representation should also receive an appropriate standard of legal service,” Ms McLeay said.

“I have initiated a complaint and investigation of my own motion into the conduct of lawyer Tass Antos, following the finding by Coroner McGregor that the legal services he provided to Ms Nelson were inadequate.”

The ABC has contacted Mr Antos, who declined to comment.

In a recording played to the request in April, Mr. Antos said he did not represent Veronica in court but was asked to speak with her. He repeatedly told the request he did not recall specific details from the time and relied on statements and emails he wrote closer to the events.

Handing down his findings in January, Coroner McGregor said when Mr Antos met with Veronica before her court appearance, he should have discussed matters such as her personal circumstances, including her Aboriginality, her prior criminal history and any custody management issues.

“I am satisfied that Mr Antos could not have undertaken all those tasks within the very short time he spent with Veronica,” Coroner McGregor said when handing down his findings in January.

“The failure to perform all those tasks and the remarkably short period of time spent with Veronica falls short of the standard expected of a legal practitioner.”

His criticism came after expert legal witnesses expressed concern that the onus was put on Veronica, in a culturally unsafe hearing before a magistrate, to disclose personal information that might have helped her case for bail over shoplifting-related offenses.

Moves to mandate cultural awareness training for lawyers

The Victorian Legal Services Board said it also accepted and agreed with the Coroner’s recommendation on the need for mandated cultural awareness training for lawyers.

Ms McLeay said the board will raise the need for cultural awareness training for lawyers with the Law Council of Australia, which has the power to mandate continuing professional development for lawyers.

“We will do all we can to ensure First Nations cultural awareness training is available to lawyers in Victoria when planning their annual [continuing professional development] key requirements,” Ms McLeay said.

“We strongly encourage lawyers to reflect on and build their understanding of First Nations People’s culture and needs, particularly if working with them directly”.

Ms McLeay said the Victorian Legal Services Board was continuing to work with the legal sector to improve cultural awareness among lawyers.

“[We] will update the profession and the community as we make progress on this work,” he said.

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