New Zealand Law Society - Failed to treat lawyers with respect

Failed to treat lawyers with respect

Published on 7 February 2020

[All names used in this article are fictitious.]

A lawyer has been found to have failed to treat other lawyers with respect and courtesy in two separate standards committee decisions.

In each of those decisions the lawyer, Bristol, was fined $2,000 and ordered to pay $1,000 costs to the New Zealand Law Society.

The first complaint was by Oxfordshire, a fellow practitioner in family law, who had received a series of emails from Bristol which the committee considered were unnecessarily aggressive, abusive and insulting. The committee was particularly shocked by an emotionally charged email from Bristol in response to a firm but polite request from Oxfordshire. In the email, Bristol described Oxfordshire as “like a girl in high school”.

The committee found the email to be a breach of rule 10.1 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008, which amounted to unsatisfactory conduct under s 12(c) of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. It noted that a finding under s 12(c) did not require that the lawyer in question provide regulated services at the time of the conduct concerned. It was satisfied rule 10.1 applies to all interactions between lawyers regardless of whether they occur in a strictly professional setting.

The second decision came after another lawyer, Armagh, sent the Lawyers Complaints Service (LCS) a letter in support of Oxfordshire’s complaint. The LCS treated Armagh’s letter as a further formal complaint about Bristol.

Armagh cited instances where Bristol had behaved in an aggressive and unprofessional manner towards her and other lawyers. Armagh was particularly concerned about the way Bristol had behaved towards a junior lawyer. Bristol sent two emails to the practitioner threatening to make a complaint to the Law Society. The committee was concerned about the overly aggressive tone and intentionally intimidating content of the emails. It considered that Bristol had failed to exhibit any respect or courtesy towards her. Around the same time, Bristol wrote an email to another lawyer describing the younger practitioner as a “little upstart” and suggesting that she “got her degree in a weetbix packet”.

The committee was concerned that Bristol, in defending her derogatory comments about the junior lawyer, characterised it as just “letting off steam” and appeared to believe that this was an acceptable response to a stressful situation.

Duty of professionalism

The committee said that there can be no justification for such conduct. It considered that the behaviour was particularly egregious in view of the fact that the comments were about a junior lawyer. The committee referred to a passage in Webb, Dalziel and Cook, Ethics, Professional Responsibility and the Lawyer (3rd edition, LexisNexis NZ Ltd, Wellington, 2016) which states that all lawyers, regardless of age and experience, owe a duty of professionalism and a junior lawyer should not be disparaged or ridiculed for mistakes or intimidated by more senior practitioners.

In another incident Bristol made an offensive comment about Armagh’s client, within earshot of the client, when she learned that a settlement proposal had not been accepted. The committee found this completely unacceptable. It considered it to be particularly concerning that Bristol spoke in this manner in front of members of the public.

The committee noted that, pursuant to s 9A of the Family Court Act 1980, lawyers acting for parties in any proceeding in the Family Court must, as far as possible, promote conciliation. Disputes between counsel could risk jeopardising such conciliation and for that reason they cannot be tolerated, the committee said.

Although the lawyer had breached rules 10 and 10.1 on a number of occasions the committee made a single finding of unsatisfactory conduct in respect of each complaint. The committee was of the view that Bristol’s conduct was relatively serious and would ordinarily have merited a more substantial fine. It reduced the fine in recognition of Bristol’s efforts to address the original bullying behaviour and to take steps to avoid future occurrences.

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