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Altering three invoices to arrange for payment to her personal bank account or the bank account of a friend has led to a finding of misconduct and strike off for former Auckland lawyer Mehal Kejriwal. Within her first year of practice, Ms Kejriwal engaged in three instances of fraudulent conduct. On two occasions, she altered a fee invoice to direct payment to her own bank account instead of the firm’s bank account. On a third occasion, she forged an invoice from another firm and directed payment to friend’s bank account (with the funds subsequently being transferred to Ms Kejriwal’s account). The Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal held that repeat and deliberate nature of the offending placed it at the very serious end of misconduct and ordered that Ms Kejriwal be struck off.
Ms Kejriwal was admitted in July 2016 and began practicing in early 2017 when she was 25 years old. In November and December 2017, she altered two fee invoices by putting her own bank account in the payment details. The amounts involved were $925 and $1,040 respectively. The third incident was more serious and involved Ms Kejriwal creating an invoice from another firm which directed an estate distribution payment of $129,025.90 into her friend’s bank account. Five days later, Ms Kejriwal’s friend transferred the same amount into her account. Ms Kejriwal admitted this process of multiple transfers was designed to avoid detection. Almost two weeks later, Ms Kejriwal transferred $128,945.90 into the client’s bank account; being the total sum less the $700 in fees that Ms Kejriwal had charged as part of the invoice. This fraud was only discovered in March 2020 when Ms Kejriwal’s firm attempted to make a further distribution to the same person but were told by the other firm that they had no record of such a client.
When the third incident was referred to a Standards Committee, Ms Kejriwal accepted responsibility immediately, but referred to it as “a first time, one off, spontaneous offence”. Ms Kejriwal admitted this was a lie when the earlier two incidents were later discovered and said that she had forgotten about those earlier incidents. Ms Kejriwal explained that she was in a fragile mental state at the time and was unhappy in her personal and professional life. She had started seeing a psychologist for assistance. Ms Kejriwal also said she in difficult financial circumstances, but the Tribunal noted that her bank records indicated otherwise.
The Tribunal concluded without hesitation that Ms Kejriwal was not and proper person at the time of the offending and had engaged in misconduct. In terms of aggravating features, the temporary redirection of significant client funds aggravated the three manufactured fees accounts as it put the client’s funds at risk. Ms Kejriwal had also exploited her position of trust as a lawyer, which had affected her clients and her employer. The Tribunal did not accept Ms Kejriwal had forgotten about the two earlier incidents, describing her actions as an elaborate attempt to mislead the Committee by omission. The Tribunal noted her inability to take responsibility for that deception whilst under cross-examination was aggravating and called into question her rehabilitation prospects.
In terms of mitigating factors, Ms Kejriwal’s youth, inexperience and personal difficulties were relevant. However, the Tribunal noted that they did not provide a full explanation for her actions. Ms Kejriwal had admitted the conduct and had no previous disciplinary record, which was to her credit (although only to a limited extent as she was relatively new to the profession). The Tribunal noted that Ms Kejriwal had only repaid $700 of the money taken and there was a further $1,965 outstanding. Given the time that had elapsed since the offending, the lack of repayment again raised concerns about her level of insight and her rehabilitation prospects.
The Tribunal carefully considered Ms Kejriwal’s rehabilitation prospects, but ultimately concluded that she could not be safely endorsed to the public as a fit and proper person to be a lawyer and ordered that she be struck off. She was also ordered to repay her former employer in full within seven days of the decision as well as paying the Standards Committee’s costs of $12,833.88 and the Tribunal’s costs of $4,102.