She is no stranger to controversy but high-profile Sydney solicitor Leigh Johnson is now embroiled in one of the most expensive and protracted legal dramas of her career.
In an extraordinary legal battle that has made its way to the state’s highest court, Ms Johnson has been rebuked for “unfair tactics” in her dealings with an elderly couple behind the Australian Institute of Music (AIM), the nation’s largest private music school.
The Woollahra-based lawyer, who was at the centre of a legal saga over a red-light camera offence in the mid-1990s, agreed in 2007 to represent AIM founders Peter Calvo, who has since died, and his wife Athalie in a court case to claw back shares in the company from their accountant.
The couple signed agreements in May 2007 allowing Ms Johnson to charge $500 an hour for her work, or $300 for work done by others.
But Dr and Mrs Calvo, who were in financial strife, signed a separate deed a fortnight later which allowed Ms Johnson to seize 32.5 per cent of the shares in AIM if she won the case. This was almost all of the shares in dispute.
In a stinging judgment in August last year, Justice Patricia Bergin said the “unfairness of the situation is of breathtaking proportion” and Ms Johnson had engaged in “inappropriate tactics”.
It was an “exquisite example” of a case in which a lawyer’s clients should have been told to seek independent advice before signing an agreement, Justice Bergin said.
The couple, represented by Ms Johnson among others, won the case against their former accountant in July 2009.
Dr Calvo, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009, suffered his second stroke on December 26 that year.
On December 30, “Ms Johnson arrived unannounced at St Vincent’s Hospital” armed with documents to transfer the shares from Dr Calvo to Ms Johnson, Mrs Calvo says in submissions filed in court.
“The circumstances surrounding the execution of the transfer of shares at St Vincent’s Hospital when Dr Calvo was so very ill, and when Mrs Calvo was extremely distressed, demonstrates the type of tactics to which Ms Johnson would stoop,” Justice Bergin said.
The judge said she had “no doubt that Ms Johnson understood the unfairness and inappropriateness of her conduct in securing signatures on this document at such a time”.
Justice Bergin struck down the transfer of shares but said the earlier agreements relating to hourly legal fees were still in force.
In March 2015, Ms Johnson sent an invoice to Mrs Calvo for between $2.3 million and $2.6 million.
Mrs Calvo has appealed the decision relating to the hourly fee agreements. The NSW Court of Appeal heard the case over two days and reserved its decision on Wednesday.
Her lawyers are seeking an order that Ms Johnson be “permanently restrained from taking any step to recover any amount” for her legal work.
The couple had previously paid Ms Johnson $55,000.
Ms Johnson’s former legal clerk Kala Subramanian was charged with signing a false statutory declaration stating that she was behind the wheel of Ms Johnson’s BMW when it was photographed going through a red light in August 1995.
A subsequent conviction was quashed by the High Court.