New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer fined, censured and made subject of supervision order for unsatisfactory conduct in relation to an estate matter

Lawyer fined, censured and made subject of supervision order for unsatisfactory conduct in relation to an estate matter

Failing to competently draft a will and administer an estate as well as discourteous conduct towards a beneficiary has led to two findings of unsatisfactory conduct by the New Zealand Lawyers and Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) in respect of Auckland lawyer Joseph Boaz Park (Mr Park). The Tribunal noted that Mr Park was inexperienced in wills and estates and that there is always a risk where lawyers embark on work in an unfamiliar area. It cautioned the profession to take care and seek guidance, noting it is the responsibility of the profession to protect their client against inadvertent error. Mr Park was fined $5,000, censured and ordered to be supervised on specific terms for a term of two years.

In January 2020, Mr Park began acting for an elderly client. The client asked Mr Park to arrange a reverse mortgage and prepare a will for her. Like Mr Park, the client was of Korean origin, and they communicated in Korean, but the formal documents were completed in English. Mr Park was not experienced in preparing wills and the will that he prepared had the effect of giving all the client’s property to Mr Park. The client died a few weeks later and Mr Park began to act as the executor.  

As the executor, Mr Park liaised with the two adult daughters of the deceased, who were the intended residuary beneficiaries. One of the two beneficiaries (who later became the complainant) was suspicious of Mr Park and was concerned that he took improper financial advantage of her mother. Their relationship quickly became strained, and the complainant engaged lawyers to act on her behalf. There were then ongoing negotiations about how to resolve the issues with the will. Mr Park eventually gave up his role as executor and renounced his interest under the will.

The Standards Committee’s case against Mr Park involved two charges. The first charge alleged professional incompetence in relation to his deceased clients affairs. The second charge alleged failing to maintain professional standards when dealing with the complainant and the lawyers she engaged.

Before turning to the charges, the Tribunal first considered the issue of whether Mr Park’s conduct as an executor could be the subject of professional disciplinary charges. It found that it could be as his conduct as executor “was so inextricably connected to his solicitor work that it must be susceptible to professional discipline”.

In respect of charge one, the Tribunal did not consider that Mr Park had breached the restriction on a lawyer personally benefitting from a will they drafted. The Tribunal considered the error was more form than substance and that Mr Park never considered that the will gave him a beneficial interest. His actions showed “fidelity to what his client intended, namely that he would be the executor and the children were the beneficiaries”. The Tribunal found that Mr Park had breached his obligation to act in a competent manner because the will he prepared was “flawed and ambiguous”, that he failed to recognise the need for codicils and he lacked familiarity with estate administration (including the need to advertise for other wills and that the bank would release funds to the executor to pay funeral expenses). The Tribunal noted that Mr Park, who was an employed solicitor at the time, was poorly supervised by his employer. Mr Park was found to have engaged in unsatisfactory conduct, but the Tribunal noted that it considered Mr Park to be “an honest, diligent practitioner who was out of his depth”. 

In respect of charge two, the Tribunal found that Mr Park’s decision to continue to communicate with the complainant in Korean after she had expressly asked him to communicate in English was unsatisfactory conduct. The Tribunal found Mr Park failed to accord the complainant respect and courtesy by refusing to communicate with her in English. It described his conduct as “inflexible and based on a misconception of his duties, and a misfire about her cultural identity”. 

In considering penalty, the Tribunal noted there was no risk of loss caused by Mr Park’s conduct, but that it was concerned to ensure that his practice was adequately supervised for the next two years. It noted that “professional error is always a risk where a lawyer embarks on work in an unfamiliar area”.  It went on to say:

A message in this decision is that lawyers must take care, seek assistance, even where the task may seem simple. It is the responsibility of the professional to protect their client against inadvertent error by seeking guidance in such cases.

The Tribunal fined Mr Park $5,000, censured him and ordered that his practice be supervised on specific terms for two years. He was ordered to make a contribution to the Committee’s and Tribunal’s costs.

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