A Standards Committee found a lawyer’s conduct towards a judge (Judge A), in demanding a hearing be rescheduled, and threatening to make a complaint about Judge A, to be unsatisfactory. The Committee concluded the lawyer had behaved unprofessionally, disrespectfully and discourteously and, in doing so, undermined the processes of the court and dignity of the judiciary. The Committee also found the threat was made for an improper purpose and that the lawyer failed in their overriding duty as an officer of the court. The Committee fined the lawyer $4,000 and ordered them to pay costs.
The lawyer was, apparently because of road works, a few minutes late to a hearing to argue their client’s application for compassionate bail. On arriving, the lawyer found that Judge A had already dismissed the application. The lawyer spoke with a Registrar, who passed a message onto Judge A that the lawyer “demanded” a rehearing that day and would be making a complaint about the judge to the Judicial Conduct Authority (JCA).
Judge A subsequently complained to the Lawyers Complaints Service about the lawyer, characterising the message passed on to him at the lawyer’s request as being “grossly discourteous”.
In response to the complaint, the lawyer argued their conduct was justified in defending their client’s bail rights. The lawyer also denied they had made any threats; rather, they had made “a statement of fact”. However, the Committee disagreed. It concluded the conduct to be both unprofessional and lacking in respect and courtesy. The Committee also concluded the lawyer had indeed made a threat and that it was for an improper purpose. While the Committee acknowledged the lawyer was entitled to make a complaint to the JCA, it considered the lawyer need not have used that as “leverage” while demanding a hearing be urgently rescheduled.
In describing the behaviour as “problematic”, the Committee considered the link between the threat to complain and the demand for a rescheduled hearing “had the ability to undermine the integrity of [the] judiciary”. It said that findings of a court should be handled “respectfully and with the appropriate level of deference and decorum.” In failing to do so, the Committee concluded the lawyer had failed in their overriding duty as an officer of the court.
The Committee concluded the lawyer had breached rr 2, 2.1, 2.7, 10, 12, 13.2 and 13.2.1 of the Rules of Conduct and Client Care (as they existed prior to 1 July 2021).
In determining penalty, the Committee considered the lawyer’s prior disciplinary history, which included other instances of unprofessionalism towards individuals involved in court processes. The Committee considered there to be a “recurrent pattern of behaviour” that warranted an uplift in the fine imposed. That uplifted fine was $4,000.
The Committee also directed anonymised publication of a summary of its decision, given that it “dealt with important issues concerning a defence counsel’s obligations to their client and to the Court.”
The Committee’s decision was confirmed on review by the Legal Complaints Review Officer. That decision can be read here: LCRO-113-2021-VN-v-Area-SC-X.pdf (justice.govt.nz).