New Zealand Law Society - Conflicting duties, threats and duty of confidence breaches by immigration lawyer

Conflicting duties, threats and duty of confidence breaches by immigration lawyer

A lawyer has been censured and fined $10,000 by a Standards Committee for her conduct relating to an immigration matter and employment dispute.

MQ was a licensed immigration adviser instructed by the complainant, EZ, to help him gain employment and a work visa. She assisted him in securing a job with a company, PLD.  PLD was in the process of setting up a business and it offered EZ a position.

Before the employment agreement between EZ and PLD was signed, MQ surrendered her immigration adviser licence in order to obtain a practising certificate as a barrister and solicitor.  She began working at a law firm.  MQ continued to act for EZ in her new capacity.

However, very quickly relations between EZ and PLD broke down and EZ resigned.   The work visa had not been lodged.

Shortly afterwards, MQ emailed EZ advising him that she was acting on the instructions of PLD.  She said he was not entitled to the payment he sought from PLD and that PLD was in fact seeking compensation from him.  MQ invited EZ to attend a mediation session with PLD at her office.  She stated that failing this, PLD would not only bring an employment claim against him but also advise Immigration New Zealand of the situation which, MQ said, could affect any future application by EZ.  Further, MQ advised that, acting on instructions from PLD, she would be writing to Immigration New Zealand to report information that EZ and family members had allegedly been working illegally in New Zealand.

The Committee determined that MQ had breached several rules of the Conduct and Client Care Rules and that her conduct amounted to unsatisfactory conduct. 

One of the Committee’s adverse findings related to the duty of confidence.  It considered that MQ held information that was confidential to EZ (concerning his immigration application) and that the disclosure of the information would adversely affect his interests.  It concluded that MQ had failed to hold that information in strict confidence, in breach of Rule 8.  Further, it concluded that MQ had acted for PLD against EZ as a former client, in circumstances that breached Rule 8.7.1.

Another of the Committee’s adverse findings related to the email from MQ to EZ when she was acting for PLD.  The Committee considered the email amounted to a threat to disclose information to Immigration New Zealand that would presumably have an adverse impact on EZ or his family.  Given that the email ostensibly related to the employment dispute, the Committee concluded that the threat was intended to place pressure on EZ in the proposed mediation process. The Committee considered that it was clearly a threat for an improper purpose, in breach of Rule 2.7.  The Committee considered that, by this conduct, MQ had failed to promote and maintain proper standards of professionalism, in breach of Rule 10.

In considering what orders to make, the Committee said MQ’s conduct was at the “serious end of the scale” of unsatisfactory conduct. The Committee was particularly concerned because EZ was in a vulnerable position due to his immigration status.  It considered that the treatment he received was “not to be tolerated”. The Committee said the penalty needed to “mark its disapproval” of what it described as “reprehensible conduct”.  It imposed a censure and a fine of $10,000. It also ordered MQ to pay costs of $2,500.

Both parties applied for a review of the Committee’s determination.  The Legal Complaints Review Officer confirmed the Committee’s determination.  A copy of the Officer’s decision can be found here.

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