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Suspended for improper use of legal processes

22 December 2017

Former lawyer Jeanne Denham has been suspended for three years from 29 September 2017.

In [2017] NZLCDT 10, the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal found Ms Denham used legal processes for an improper purpose, and that constituted misconduct.

Background

Ms Denham laid an assault complaint with the police against her former husband. The police gave her former husband – a school principal – a written warning, and made it clear they would not be laying a charge against him.

Ms Denham engaged a public relations consultant, who provided media releases which Ms Denham approved, to the Whaleoil blog authors about the matter.

At the time Ms Denham and her former husband were involved in contentious relationship property proceedings.

Six days after she laid the complaint with the police, the first post appeared on Whaleoil. It stated the school principal was being questioned by police on a charge of male assaults female. It also named the chair of the school board, and stated that the board had known about the allegations and done nothing.

This was the first of a series of publications about the matter that appeared both on Whaleoil and in the New Zealand Herald. Some articles also appeared in the United Kingdom, including The Telegraph.

After the police decided not to prosecute her former husband, Ms Denham unsuccessfully attempted to have the police review their decision. That included approaches to politicians and seeking a review of the decision by the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

Ms Denham then instituted a private prosecution for male assaults female.

She also organised with the public relations consultant for further articles to appear in the New Zealand Herald and on Whaleoil. This effectively denied her former husband the opportunity to seek name suppression from the court.

Abuse of process

The District Court dismissed the private prosecution as an abuse of process.

In dismissing the prosecution, Judge McNaughton stated: “As to abuse of process I am satisfied beyond any doubt that this private prosecution has been brought for an ulterior motive by the complainant, that is, primarily to destroy his career and reputation and collaterally to damage [the school] and at the same time to obtain an advantage in pressing the relationship property claim. On that basis alone the charges should be dismissed.

“Further, I am satisfied on the complainant’s own evidence that she knowingly and actively sought to subvert the operation of suppression orders with the assistance of [the public relations consultant] and [the Whaleoil blog author] and that in itself constitutes a serious abuse of process, along with material nondisclosure of the communications with [the public relations consultant] which have revealed the complainant’s underlying motives for all to see.”

The Judge’s findings were further reflected in an award of indemnity costs against Ms Denham of almost $146,000.

The Tribunal considered email and text messages as evidence of Ms Denham’s purpose in pursuing the course of action she took and her evidence given in person before the Tribunal, together with the District Court findings.

Censured

The Tribunal found that Ms Denham had fallen “well below that standard and in doing so has tarnished the reputation of the profession … . [T]his behaviour cannot be categorised as a “brief rush of blood to the head” against the background of an acrimonious matrimonial break up which might warrant some level of understanding or tolerance. The behaviour continued for over three years including nine months during which Ms Denham was a practising lawyer”.

“The public must be able to be clear that when a lawyer issues proceedings he or she would only do so for proper purposes and in a considered and ethical manner,” the Tribunal said.

In its penalty decision, [2017] NZLCDT 30, the Tribunal said that Ms Denham had avoided strike-off by a “fine margin” because the Tribunal was not unanimous.

“In your relentless pursuit of strategies played out in public to malign the reputation of [your former husband] and [the school of which he was principal] and your misguided private prosecution, which was found by the Court to be a misuse of the criminal justice system, you completely lost sight of your professional obligations as a lawyer.”

As well as suspending Ms Denham, the Tribunal censured her, and ordered that if she applied for a practising certificate, that she reimburse costs of $5,000 to the New Zealand Law Society.

Last updated on the 22nd December 2017