The Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal has suspended a lawyer for four months and ordered him to apologise and pay costs after he accepted that he had engaged in misconduct.
Mr Y misled the Standards Committee and denied the existence of an intimate relationship with a client. The decision emphasises the importance of being frank and honest when engaging with the profession’s disciplinary processes, and of taking responsibility when there has been a breach of professional rules.
The first instance of misconduct occurred when Mr Y became engaged in an intimate relationship with a client. When that relationship became the subject of a complaint, Mr Y misled the Standards Committee and denied the existence of the relationship, which was the second misconduct. In the course of the hearing, Mr Y took the responsible step of accepting that this behaviour amounted to misconduct.
Mr Y was a recovering alcoholic receiving treatment at a clinic including from a registered psychotherapy practitioner, Ms T. Mr Y then began acting for Ms T with unresolved relationship separation and property division legal issues, and several months later Mr Y and Ms T’s relationship became more intimate and a sexual relationship developed.
After Ms T’s ex-husband objected to a patient of Ms T’s clinic representing her, Mr Y handed over the file to one of his law partners. There was a period of about six weeks duration during which Mr Y and Ms T were in a relationship, while at the same time Mr Y was acting for her. Throughout this time, Mr Y continued to rely on Ms T’s support in managing his recovery from alcoholism.
Ms T’s husband eventually became aware of the relationship and made a complaint to the Law Society. Mr Y twice denied the relationship in writing to the Law Society’s Complaints Service.
In relation to the first charge, the Tribunal considered that the power of imbalance usually associated with a lawyer having an intimate relationship with a client was to some extent mitigated by Mr Y’s reliance on Ms T for support. It also considered that the relatively short overlap between the personal relationship and acting for Ms T reduced the seriousness of the behaviour.
The Tribunal was clear that if this been the only area of concern, the Tribunal would have considered a less significant penalty.
The more significant issue related to the dishonesty in his dealings with the Law Society. While it was acknowledged that there were multiple and complex reasons for Mr Y not being truthful about the relationship, including protecting Ms T from professional repercussions of her own, the Tribunal found this was significant misconduct.
In setting a penalty, the Tribunal acknowledged Mr Y’s long and otherwise-unblemished career, his genuine remorse and apology, and Mr Y’s self-report to the Standards Committee, taking responsibility for misleading it about the nature of the relationship. The Tribunal made orders that Mr Y be suspended for four months, make an apology to the complainant, and pay costs to the Standards Committee and the Law Society.