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    « Academia's greasy pole | Main | Laboratory for apparatchiks »

    Panda claws solicitor 

    Panda politics at USyd's Student Representative Council ... Student politicians terminate the SRC's long-standing lawyer ... More lawyers enter the melee at 10 paces ... Allegations back and forth on Facebook ... Lawyer refuses to act for SRC president in defamation case ... Barely Legal sums up the issues 

    Last month at the University of Sydney a crop of student politicians fired the long-serving principal solicitor at the SRC's free legal service. Now both sides have lawyered up, and the dismissed solicitor is dragging the SRC to the Fair Work Commission. 

    Thomas McLoughlin was once an associate at Baker McKenzie, then a member of Waverley Council, a paralegal at Allens, and later a solicitor at Stephen Blanks' Rozelle law shop SBA Lawyers. McLoughlin joined the SRC Legal Service in 2014. 

    His ouster came after he refused to represent the current SRC president, Jacky He, in a defamation matter. McLoughlin cited a conflict of interest and Justinian understands that the president, as director of the Legal Service, was involved in internal complaints against McLoughlin which meant that the solicitor was in an impossible position. 

    President He, a 20-year-old supported mainly by the 'Panda' faction of international students, took this on the nose. After several warnings he fired McLoughlin without formal notice on June 15, alleging "serious misconduct". Two other student politicians, both on the SRC Legal Service board, backed the president's decision. 

    McLoughlin departed his basement-level office in the SRC's City Road digs. 

    From McLoughlin's public Facebook posts, Justinian understands the lawyer received two letters that afternoon. One was his marching orders proper: employment terminated, serious misconduct - and crucially no payout in lieu of notice or for untaken long service leave. 

    The other letter, in the same envelope, had different ideas. This was also signed by President He and Co and was an attempt to preemptively settle any workplace complaints McLoughlin might bring. 

    SRC lawyer Thomas McLoughlin: peremptorily terminated

    Long service leave and pay in lieu were back on the table - if McLoughlin agreed not to sue. The amount offered was three months' pay, apparently around $23,000. Other conditions included a non-disclosure agreement and an agreement that McLoughlin refrain from disparaging the SRC. 

    Both the termination letter and the offer were drafted by employment specialist Chris McArdle of McArdle Legal.

    But McArdle's efforts were in vain: McLoughlin refused the settlement, instead suing a statement critical of his termination

    "This is a really bad and terrible coup with no transparency with the effect of covering up abuses of s.39 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law - things like breaches of confidentiality, things like duress to act when conflicted out, things like malicious unfounded allegations." 

    He then retained IR barrister Adam Guy of HB Higgins Chambers and began firing off complaints. He referred Jacky He and his colleagues to the legal services commissioner, saying they had mismanaged the SRC's law practice. Then, on July 2 he filed an unfair dismissal case with the Fair Work Commission. 

    McLoughlin is also claiming around $18,000 in annual leave entitlements, which the SRC agrees it is obliged pay.

    In many ways, the current stoush is more of the same for McLoughlin, whose time at the SRC has been turbulent. Since starting as principal in 2014 he faced at least four workplace complaints, brought by other lawyers and student politicians. 

    The complaints remain confidential, but Justinian understands they involved allegations of bullying, racism and professional misconduct.  

    McLoughlin said he had "strong refutations" for the complaints, calling them "reprisals" for his efforts to run the SRC Legal Service as an above-board law practice, with standards of confidentiality and good record keeping.

    According to McLoughlin, one complaint was never substantiated. A further two went to the legal service commissioner, who knocked one back and is yet to rule on the other. 

    The latest complaint launched only this year was heard without McLoughlin, who was absent on sick leave. Jacky's involvement in this grievance was, in part, McLoughlin's ground for refusing to act for him in the defamation case.

    In a statement on Facebook, President He insisted it was McLoughlin's recusal, and not the complaints against him, that cost him his position: 

    "Our actions arose from him refusing to do his job. 

    But many [staff] have indicated that they will give evidence about his behaviour if he sues us or something."

    He: Panda president

    According to the same Facebook post, McLoughlin also said he refused to be "told what to do by 20-25 year olds". President He didn't appreciate that comment:

    "I was obliged to remind him that dealing with 20 somethings was pretty much unavoidable if you are going to work for a body such as ours." 

    McLoughlin has been replaced as principal by An Li, who joined the SRC Legal Service only in April this year. With McLoughlin gone, Li is for the time being the sole lawyer at a practice which gives free help to clients, most of them students. 

    According to McLoughlin, standard matters for the Legal Service include "dodgy landlords and bullying co-tenants, bogus university mis-conduct complaints, compensation for victims of indecent assault [and] cancelling fines levied by the ATO". 

    The Legal Service's budget for 2018 was $162,000, which came from compulsory student fees. The funds cover two lawyers and expenses, though McLoughlin claims he was not "paid a market or commercial wage" during his time as principal. 

    The Legal Service is technically a separate organisation to the SRC. But the SRC president and general secretaries, who are student politicians, sit on its board ex officio. The two gen secs have apparently backed President He's handling of the McLoughlin case. 

    One of them, a Chinese international student named Yuxuan Yang, belongs to President He's Panda faction. The other, Niamh Callinan, is a member of Labor - a party that, back in its halcyon days, was undisputed master of the SRC, once winning 14 elections in a row. 

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