New Zealand Law Society - Employee of law firm made subject of do not employ order for misappropriating funds

Employee of law firm made subject of do not employ order for misappropriating funds

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) has made a do no employ order in respect of Rhiannon Smith (Ms Smith). While working at a law firm in an accounts role, Ms Smith misappropriated funds. A total of $2,289.66 was misappropriated and, as at the date of the hearing, $875.73 remained owing to the firm. The Tribunal found that the conduct was premeditated, involved sophistication and that Ms Smith lacked remorse. The Tribunal made an order that Ms Smith not be employed by a practitioner or incorporated law firm until the order is lifted. The Tribunal also ordered Ms Smith to pay compensation to the firm in relation to the outstanding amount.

Ms Smith’s role at the firm involved handling accounts. On two occasions, she arranged for payments from the firm to be deposited into her friend’s bank account instead of the account of the creditor for who they were intended. The amounts involved were $875.73 and $1,413,93 respectively. There were 10 months between each transaction and the second sum was recovered by bank action. However, the $875.73 figure remained outstanding. The Tribunal found this constituted conduct in the course of her employment which, if it were the conduct of a practitioner, would render the practitioner liable to have her name struck off.

Overall, the Tribunal described Ms Smith’s conduct as covert and dishonest. It involved premeditation, sophistication and a breach of the trust. Although Ms Smith was a teenager at the time of the conduct, the Tribunal did not accept that youth and inexperience were significant mitigating factors.

The Tribunal found that there was no genuine remorse by Ms Smith. She never disclosed the misappropriation and initially denied the offending (before later accepting it).  While she accepted that she should repay the outstanding amount, she had taken no steps to do so (despite the misappropriation occurring four years prior).

In order to protect the public and the profession, the Tribunal made an order prohibiting any practitioner or incorporated firm from employing Ms Smith until such time as the order is removed.  The Tribunal considered it appropriate Ms Smith pay compensation for the outstanding amount plus interest. Ms Smith was also ordered to pay costs.