New Zealand Law Society - Failure to ensure correspondence is professional, respectful and courteous held to be unsatisfactory conduct

Failure to ensure correspondence is professional, respectful and courteous held to be unsatisfactory conduct

A lawyer sent disrespectful and discourteous correspondence that made the recipients feel unsafe and harassed, over a period of months, continuing despite written concerns and requests for it to stop. A Standards Committee (Committee) determined that was unsatisfactory conduct, censured the lawyer and ordered them to pay a fine and costs.

The lawyer often communicated with one particular entity (Organisation) in their area of practice. The Organisation was sufficiently concerned about the nature of the lawyer’s communications that it put in place a policy about the handling of those communications, to protect its staff. The Organisation also notified the lawyer of its concerns and indicated it would complain to the Law Society if such communication continued. After the lawyer continued communicating in the same way, the Organisation made a formal complaint to the Law Society. 

The communications in question included statements about the Organisation’s staff being incapable and incompetent, dishonest and false, lacking in integrity and otherwise not fit for the job.

In assessing the lawyer’s behaviour against rr 10 and 12 of the Conduct and Client Care Rules, the Committee concluded such communications were “inconsistent with [the lawyer’s] obligations to conduct [their] dealings professionally, respectfully, and with courtesy.” The Committee acknowledged that “lawyers are entitled, and sometimes even expected, to engage in robust correspondence on behalf of their clients” but said that must still be done in an “even-tempered and professional manner.”  

Instead, the Committee found the communications “unduly offensive, aggressive and personal in both content and tone,” with the accusations being “overwrought, intemperate, and overstated.” The Committee said such correspondence had “no place in communications from lawyers.”  

The Committee further considered the lawyer’s conduct was “significantly aggravated” by the way the lawyer continued such communications not only after the Organisation asked them to stop but also after the formal complaint was made. The Committee also noted the “stark contrast” between the Organisation’s “measured and professional" communications and the lawyer’s communications. 

The Committee determined that the lawyer had engaged in unsatisfactory conduct in terms of both s 12(a) and 12(b) of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.  This was because it concluded the lawyer had breached the Conduct and Client Care Rules (s 12(a) unsatisfactory conduct) and that the communications would be regarded by all lawyers of good standing as unacceptable (s 12(b) unsatisfactory conduct). The Committee censured the lawyer and ordered them to pay a $2,000 fine plus costs.

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