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A Standards Committee has determined that a lawyer’s conduct was unsatisfactory for claiming the COVID-19 wage subsidy for an unpaid volunteer at his firm. The Committee stated that the provision of a false statutory declaration, certificate or an affidavit by a lawyer is a serious matter. The lawyer was fined $10,000, censured and ordered to pay $1,000 in costs.
The lawyer had applied and received a subsidy for a full-time employee even though the individual in question was part time and received no remuneration.
In commencing its investigation, the Standards Committee first established that it had jurisdiction to consider the matter. It stated:
“The management of all employees (including volunteers receiving work experience with the firm) is, in the view of the Committee, inextricably linked to the provision of regulated services by a lawyer and a law firm.”
Even if this was not the case, a lawyer may still be exposed to a finding of unsatisfactory conduct if he or she was in breach of the Act, or any regulations made under the Act.
The Committee found that by making a false declaration to the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) that the volunteer was a paid employee, the lawyer had breached rule 2.5 of the Conduct and Client Care Rules.
The lawyer stated that he had intended to employ the volunteer when the Volunteer Agreement came to an end 11 weeks later. However, the volunteer “resigned” before this date. The lawyer did not inform the Ministry of Social Development that she had left and maintained that he kept the subsidy in order to apply it to her replacement. He only repaid the subsidy once an investigation was opened by the Lawyers Complaints Service and three months after first receiving it. The Committee considered that the lawyer had not taken reasonable steps to correct his false declaration to the MSD of his own accord and found that he had breached rule 2.6.
The Committee also considered that, by applying for a wage subsidy for someone who was not employed by his firm, the lawyer had engaged in misleading conduct. It therefore determined that he had breached rule 11.1.
The Committee stated in its decision that the provision of a false statutory declaration, certificate or an affidavit by a lawyer is a serious matter. Accordingly, the practitioner was fined $10,000, censured and ordered to pay $1,000 in costs.