The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) has suspended Wellington lawyer Chris Tennet (Mr Tennet) for a period of 12 months (commencing 6pm on 22 June 2023). Mr Tennet was found guilty of misconduct after he overstated the cost of an alcohol and drug report when invoicing a client and then deleted the report instead of sending it onto the client and their new lawyer. The Tribunal found “these behaviours were not consonant with Mr Tennet being a fit and proper person to practise as a lawyer”, but this needed to be balanced against Mr Tennet’s years of service as a lawyer and contributor to the community. The Tribunal ultimately imposed a 12-month suspension period, a censure and a supervision order (to commence upon his return to practice).
Mr Tennet was acting for M in criminal proceedings, and the Court ordered that M complete an alcohol and drug report for sentencing. Mr Tennet recommended that M obtain a private report (instead of the Court funded one), which she agreed to do. The report writer agreed to complete the report for $1200, but Mr Tennet later sent an invoice to M, which said the report cost $3,450. Mr Tennet accepted this was a lie and the Tribunal found that he sent the invoice “as a means of attempting to lever money from her”, knowing that she was a vulnerable person and had been seriously assaulted by her partner, whom she relied on for payment of her bills, days before. The Tribunal found this breached the obligation of lawyers to treat a client with respect and courtesy and the relationship of trust and confidence between lawyer and client. Mr Tennet then received a copy of the final report, but failed to send it to the client or her new lawyer, which deprived M of the effective use of her property and led to a further adjournment of her sentencing while a new report was completed. The Tribunal found that both aspects of Mr Tennet’s actions amounted to misconduct.
In its penalty decision, the Tribunal assessed the cause of the misconduct. It rejected any suggestion that Mr Tennet’s behaviour was caused by an unhappy personal relationship. It considered Mr Tennet’s previous disciplinary record, which included failing to advance proceedings for a serving prisoner, harassing correspondence with Department of Corrections staff and personal attacks on an employee of Legal Aid Services which the Legal Complaints Review Officer had described as “prolonged bullying”. The Tribunal noted that Mr Tennet’s references showed he was capable of “generous behaviour and showing a kindly face to peers”, he had acted in ways which are contrary to those that reflect a fit and proper person having the privileges of being a lawyer, particularly in relation to those he might regard as his inferiors. It considered his conduct towards M was driven by “self-indulgent pique” and that Mr Tennet had failed to regulate his response after becoming annoyed at M.
The Tribunal accepted that the behaviours were not consonant with Mr Tennet being a fit and proper person to practise as a lawyer and that this brought the question of strike off into play. Against that, it balanced his many years of service as a lawyer and contributor to his community, both legal and extra-legal. It noted that the numerous, careful references provided on Mr Tennet’s behalf had a considerable impact and it had decided to give Mr Tennet “the opportunity of redemption”. However, it noted that “when a seasoned practitioner behaves arrogantly and dishonestly in dealing with a client”, the matter could not be taken lightly. It accepted that Mr Tennet was aware of this and that Mr Tennet’s default was embarrassing for him.
The Tribunal imposed a 12 month suspension (noting it would have imposed 15 months but for the references provided on Mr Tennet’s behalf), censured Mr Tennet and ordered that he be subject to a supervision arrangement upon his return to practise. This involved supervision both by a senior practitioner but also by a suitable therapist “to address his past behaviours of failure to show professional respect and learn strategies to avoid repetition”. Mr Tennet was also ordered to pay costs.