New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer disclosed confidential information

Lawyer disclosed confidential information

Published on 8 February 2019

[All names used in this article are fictitious.]

A lawyer has been censured for disclosing information about a sensitive domestic matter to a third party.

In addition to the censure, a lawyers standards committee also ordered the lawyer, Bansad, to pay $1,000 compensation to his client, Ms Stans, for the distress and anxiety she suffered as a result of his conduct.

Ms Stans had asked Bansad to draw up a deed of agreement between her and another individual and specifically asked that this remain confidential, especially with regards to her family, who were known to Bansad.

Ms Stans also asked that her will be updated. When Ms Stans asked about the cost, she was told by Bansad that “we will sort something out”. It took over six months for the deed to be prepared and when it was, Ms Stans took it to be signed by the other party.

When she returned the deed to the firm, it was pointed out to her that it should also have been witnessed. An employee of the firm said they would enquire about “the authenticity” of the deed without the signatures having been witnessed. However, at the time of making her complaint, Ms Stans said she had not heard back about that.

Ms Stans subsequently received an invoice from the firm. This covered the deed and updating her will and included the other individual’s name. The invoice was also copied to a family member without Ms Stans’s authority, and despite her explicit instructions that the matter was to remain confidential.

Ms Stans complained that:

  • Bansad’s firm had breached her privacy by providing a family member with a copy of the invoice recording the other individual’s name;
  • she was still unsure of the authenticity of the deed; and
  • that the total invoice was excessive considering the lack of timeliness and considerable effort she took to get anything done.

The committee found unsatisfactory conduct by Bansad in that:

  • he did not provide his client, in advance, information in writing on the principal aspects of client service, including the basis on which fees would be charged;
  • he breached his duty of confidence to his client by disclosing information about her to a third party without authority; and
  • he failed to act competently and in a timely manner consistent with the terms of his retainer and duty to respond to inquiries in a timely manner.

While noting that the unauthorised disclosure was not intentional, the committee said it “considers that the disclosure was serious and careless and could have significant consequences for both Ms [Stans] and a third party”.

After receiving the complaint, Bansad accepted the fact that issues relating to the deed needed to be looked at afresh and suggested that an independent lawyer review the matter at his cost.

A barrister instructed by Bansad’s firm to review the deed provided a report to Ms Stans, Bansad and the committee.

The barrister noted that: “It is important … that both parties are strongly advised of the effect and implications of any such agreement and whether in fact such an agreement would be enforceable at the end of the day. Importantly it could have results unintended by the parties.”

The committee noted that it appeared likely that Ms Stans was not advised that the deed, as drafted, was not necessary and may have unintended consequences.

As well as the censure and compensation order, the committee ordered Bansad to pay $500 costs.

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