The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) has found that former Waikato lawyer Katelyn Silvester engaged in misconduct by altering documents and misleading her supervising partner. The Tribunal found the conduct was serious as “honesty and candour are fundamental character traits expected in a lawyer”. The Tribunal acknowledged that there were mitigating factors at play and imposed a one-month suspension, censured Ms Silvester and ordered her to pay costs.
The factual background to the case involved two incidents. The first took place in 2021 when Ms Silvester relied on an amended A&I that had not been initialled by the client. When asked about the A&I form, Ms Silvester lied to her supervising partner and fabricated an email to support this lie. The second incident took place in 2022 when Ms Silvester certified a copy of an enduring power of attorney as being true and correct without sighting the original. The copy differed from the original in a significant respect. When asked about how she had come to receive the copy, Ms Silvester lied to her supervising partner and fabricated an email in support of this lie. Her supervising partner then relied on this lie in discussions with another firm and only later discovered the truth.
In considering liability, the Tribunal found that altering documents and lying to one’s supervising partner would reasonably be regarded by lawyers of good standing as disgraceful or dishonourable and was therefore misconduct. The Tribunal also found the conduct was a breach of Ms Silvester’s obligation to uphold the rule of law, to promote and maintain professional standards and not to engage in misleading or deceptive practice (amongst other breaches).
The Tribunal noted that Ms Silvester had expressed her remorse and that she had fallen short of professional standards in her conduct. She was a junior solicitor at the time, who felt anxious to complete matters for her client and please her employer. The Tribunal accepted that inexperience and anxiety were operative factors in the conduct. It noted Ms Silvester did not obtain any personal advantage through her actions (other than concealing her shortcomings).
In determining penalty, the Tribunal held that honesty and candour are fundamental character traits for lawyers and that Ms Silvester’s actions brought into question her fitness to practice. The Tribunal held that the conduct was such that it could not countenance a response that did not involve a period of suspension even though Ms Silvester does not currently hold a practising certificate. Accordingly, it ordered that Ms Silvester be suspended for one month, censured and ordered to pay costs.