New Zealand Law Society - Issuing seven inaccurate invoices leads to a finding of negligence, a fine of $8,000 and a censure

Issuing seven inaccurate invoices leads to a finding of negligence, a fine of $8,000 and a censure

Issuing seven inaccurate invoices has led to a finding of negligence for former practitioner Mr V. The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal found that Mr V’s conduct brought the profession into disrepute. The Tribunal noted that Mr V did not profit from the inaccurate invoices however and there were a number of other mitigating factors. The Tribunal imposed a fine of $8,000, censured Mr V and ordered him to pay costs. Mr V was granted permanent name suppression.

Mr V was a senior partner at a firm in his final years of practice.  In 2019, he began to work from home and believed that an understanding had been reached where he could bill for his time separately to the firm.  Between 2019 and 2021, he issued seven invoices in the firm’s name which were inaccurate, and “on the harshest assessment, false and misleading”. The invoices were all for actual work done by Mr V, but none of the work was done through Mr V’s firm.  The invoices could be broken down into various categories; work done for a client in exchange for a donation to a charity, work done in exchange for personal payment to Mr V and work done in exchange for an abatement relating to subdivision project in which Mr V’s son was involved (which was done to assist Mr V’s son).  The full amount represented by the first two categories of invoices was refunded by Mr V to the firm.  The invoices in relation to the last category (of which there were five in total) were never intended to be paid, but this was never recorded anywhere, and Mr V did not consider the potential GST implications involved for the project.

In considering liability, the Tribunal did not consider Mr V’s conduct to reach the threshold of misconduct, noting that while the conduct was deceptive there was no ill intent and that Mr V did not profit from his actions (although the Tribunal noted that Mr V’s son did receive a benefit).  The Tribunal considered the manner in which the invoices were issued, on the firm’s letterhead, was fairly categorised as a mistake, and otherwise considered the payment strategy in respect of the subdivision was poorly thought through. The Tribunal also did not consider the threshold of intentional or reckless contravention of the rules was met.  The Tribunal noted that Mr V was not a competent user of technology and was using the invoice precedent available to him, which was the firm’s invoice precedent.  The Tribunal held his actions “were of more of the nature of careless ineptitude in Mr V not knowing how to use his firm’s systems, not taking action to ensure that he was doing the work correctly himself or taking steps to ensure that he had administrative support he needed.”

The Tribunal found that the conduct amounted to negligence. It held a reasonable member of the public, informed of the casual and thoughtless manner in which Mr V prepared and sent those invoices especially when there was GST involved, would consider the behaviour reprehensible, unacceptable and was conduct which ought to be properly sanctioned by his professional body. It said the number of invoices involved and the period of time over which they were issued, combined with Mr V’s lengthy experience, took the matter beyond unprofessional conduct and "into the level of negligence such as to bring the profession into disrepute”. The Tribunal reiterated that the rendering of invoices “require care and propriety” for those taking responsibility for such a task.

In determining the appropriate penalty, the Tribunal noted that a “lawyer of [Mr V’s] seniority is expected to set an example for less experienced lawyers, and in this respect, Mr V has let himself and his profession down”, though the matter is not one which requires the need for public protection – Mr V is retired and no members of the public were harmed by the conduct.  The Tribunal noted that to Mr V’s credit he had worked a lawyer for 45 years and had been deeply involved his local community.  There were a number of glowing references provided on Mr V’s behalf.  The Tribunal also noted that it was to Mr V’s credit that he had been co-operative in the course of the proceedings and responsibly involved counsel to represent him.

In terms of penalty, Mr V was ordered to pay a fine of $8,000, censured and ordered to pay costs. Mr V was given permanent name suppression in order to protect the interests of his former firm, noting the public protection was not a factor.