New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer struck off for sustained series of unprofessional actions

Lawyer struck off for sustained series of unprofessional actions

Breaching a binding settlement agreement, engaging in meritless attacks and making dishonest and misconceived allegations in the course of litigation has led to a finding of misconduct and strike off for former Wellington lawyer Caroline Sawyer. Dr Sawyer was also ordered to pay the Committee's costs and the Tribunal's costs.

The Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) held that Dr Sawyer’s conduct in managing both her own personal litigation and the cases of her clients was disruptive and demonstrated that she could not be trusted to behave within acceptable bounds. As Dr Sawyer had not shown that she was willing or able to address these behaviours, public confidence in the provision of legal services required her to be struck off.

Dr Sawyer’s personal litigation began with her entering into a settlement agreement with her former employer, the Victoria University of Wellington. The terms of which included that the settlement was in full and final settlement of all matters and that Dr Sawyer would not make disparaging remarks about two named employees. Dr Sawyer was found by Employment Relations Authority (the Authority) to have breached the settlement agreement by making disparaging comments on two occasions. Dr Sawyer appealed one of these decisions to the Employment Court, which was dismissed, and a finding made that Dr Sawyer had given untruthful evidence.  Dr Sawyer then filed proceedings in the High Court challenging the validity of the settlement agreement, which was dismissed as being an abuse of process. Dr Sawyer filed similar proceedings in the Court of Appeal, which was again dismissed and described as misconceived and an abuse of process.

Dr Sawyer engaged in similar conduct when acting for H, an employment advocate and C, H’s company.  Prior to Dr Sawyer being engaged, the Authority had found that H and C had breached a non-disparagement clause.  After Dr Sawyer began acting, she challenged that and other decisions and alleged serious misconduct by a junior solicitor who was acting for the opposing party. These applications were dismissed, and criticisms made about Dr Sawyer’s conduct. In separate proceedings for H and C, an issue arose in relation to C’s authority to act (ATA). In response to a minute from an Authority Member on this issue, Dr Sawyer alleged impropriety by opposing counsel and the Authority Member in a letter to the Chief of the Authority. She continued to file documents which contained unfounded allegations about opposing counsel and Authority Member throughout the proceedings. These applications were all dismissed, and the Court noted that repeated assertions were not supported by evidence.

The Tribunal noted that lawyers are entitled to represent their clients “fearlessly, even colourfully”, but that their conduct must comply with the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 and Rules of Client Care and Conduct (the Rules). Dr Sawyer had deliberately disregarded a non-publication order and pursued successive proceedings in a way that was so unrestrained that it amounted to repeated abuses of process and demonstrated a disrespect for the rule of law and the administration of justice. The Tribunal found that Dr Sawyer’s departure from the standards expected amounted to misconduct and justified a finding that Dr Sawyer was not a fit and proper person to practise law. In making this finding, the Tribunal noted that Dr Sawyer’s accusations were scandalous and decoupled from concrete proof and had become increasingly excessive over time. She had used language which was extreme and unbecoming of a member of the profession. The Tribunal found lawyers of good standing would consider the communications disgraceful and amounted to a willful breach of the Rules.

The Tribunal also accepted that Dr Sawyer had shown a lack of independence in representing H and C while she was still attempting to relitigate her own personal issues which were of a broadly similar nature. Her allegations towards opposing counsel showed a patent lack of objectivity and read as her own personal viewpoints. An example of her failure to provide objective advice was her response to the ATA issue which required proper legal analysis and response rather than a letter of complaint to the Chief of the Authority. Her conduct in this regard would not amount to misconduct if viewed in isolation, it was part of an overall finding of professional misconduct.

The Tribunal held that the wildness of Dr Sawyer’s many unfounded allegations and her pursuit of meritless litigation distinguished her case from a practitioner who had temporarily lost their way. While Dr Sawyer had no previous disciplinary history, she had shown no insight into her behaviour. Her last email to the Tribunal repeated allegations of corruption within the justice system that was designed to support the drug trade and child pornography, and this left the Tribunal with concerns as to her overall balance of mind. Her departure from acceptable standards and her repetition of similar behaviour despite judicial warnings offered no basis upon which she might be rehabilitated. She did not engage with the proceedings and did not appear willing to address her troublesome behaviour.

The Tribunal therefore found public confidence in the provision of legal services required strike off. Dr Sawyer was also ordered to pay the Committee’s costs and the Tribunal’s costs.