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When a complaint is made

The Lawyers Complaints Service must be uniform and consistent throughout New Zealand, and also fair, effective and efficient. Complaints will be handled in 12 of the branch areas on behalf of the New Zealand Law Society, with national office maintaining a supervisory role. Standards committees will handle the complaints assisted by Legal Standards Officers (LSOs).

Complaints must be in writing and must include certain information. The complaints service must give reasonable assistance to any person wishing to make a complaint. Once a valid complaint has been received, a LSO must acknowledge receipt to the complainant, notify the lawyer and provide a copy of the complaint, and refer the matter as soon as reasonably practicable to a standards committee.

Lawyers have the right to make an explanation in response to the complaint.

Early Resolution Service

If a complainant and the lawyer they're complaining about are both willing, matters could be resolved by negotiation, conciliation or mediation via the Early Resolution Service.  If so, an ERS Legal Standards Officer will phone and explain the process. 

Initial decision

Once a complaint has been referred to it, the standards committee may:

  • Decide to take no action on the complaint
  • Ask the parties to explore negotiation, conciliation or mediation to resolve all or part of the complaint
  • Decide to inquire into the complaint

The committee must, as soon as practicable, advise the complainant and the lawyer of the procedure that it proposes to adopt.

Inquiry

If an inquiry is commenced, the standards committee may delegate part of this to a LSO, a costs assessor or a special investigator. Once all the information has been received, a hearing will be held.

Hearings and findings

There is a strong statutory preference for hearings to be on the papers.

After holding a hearing, a standards committee can make one of the following determinations:

  • Decide that no further action is warranted
  • Decide that the matter is so serious that it should be referred to the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal
  • Find that there has been unsatisfactory conduct

If a standards committee makes a finding of unsatisfactory conduct, it has a wide range of orders that it can make (under s156 of the LCA), including:

  • That some or all of the terms of an agreed settlement (made at mediation) be all or part of a final determination of the complaint
  • Making a censure or reprimand, or ordering an apology to be made
  • Ordering the lawyer to pay compensation up to $25,000 (for actual loss)
  • Ordering that fees be reduced or cancelled or refunds made and errors or omissions rectified
  • Ordering that a lawyer’s practice be made available for inspection
  • Ordering a lawyer to take management advice and undergo training or education
  • Fining a lawyer up to $15,000
  • Ordering a lawyer to pay costs of the inquiry and/or costs/expenses of complainant

Notification of most decisions of a standards committee is made to the complainant and lawyer and also to related entities (partner, employer or director) and to the NZLS. A standards committee may direct publication of any decision but the decision to publish the name of a lawyer who has been censured can be made only by the NZLS Board.

How to respond to a complaint investigation

If you are asked to respond to a Standards Committees about a complaint:

  • Be prompt with your response
  • Cover all matters raised by the complaint, but do not make your explanations too long
  • If you do not want to answer a particular point (if a matter is before the Court, for example) explain why
  • If a number of different allegations are made, list and deal with each one separately
  • If a complaint is justified, acknowledge this, if appropriate, and apologise
  • Answer any follow-up questions promptly
  • If you are finding it difficult to respond, ask someone else in your firm to review the file and prepare the response on your behalf. In some firms this is done routinely. If you are a sole practitioner, ask another sole practitioner, your attorney, or your local law society office for the name of someone from a Friends Panel who may be able to help. This can provide a different perspective.

Last updated on the 3rd June 2015