New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer suspended for six weeks for breaching lockdown restrictions

Lawyer suspended for six weeks for breaching lockdown restrictions

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) has found that Auckland lawyer Umar Abdul Kuddus engaged in misconduct when he deliberately crossed the Auckland boundary in breach of lockdown restrictions in September 2021. The Tribunal noted that lawyers have a duty to uphold the law and Mr Kuddus’ conduct and his subsequent avoidance of its moment brought into question his wisdom, judgement and candour. The Tribunal suspended Mr Kuddus for six weeks, censured him and ordered him to pay costs.

On 17 September 2021, Mr Kuddus crossed the border when Auckland was under Covid-19 lockdown on the basis he was required to do so for priority court proceedings. Mr Kuddus had previously been told that he could approve the hearing by telephone but chose to attend in person. He boasted about his exploits on social media. Mr Kuddus accepted that his conduct would reasonably be regarded by lawyers of good standing as disgraceful or dishonourable. The Tribunal accepted this was the case and noted that lawyers have a duty to uphold the law.

The Tribunal noted that the context of the breach was highly sensitised. The lockdown in Auckland caused “wide distress” and that people had been unable to see family and loved ones. Before the Tribunal, Mr Kuddus did not completely accept that he had broken the law and referred to his actions being the result of a mistaken belief that he was acting in accordance with the law. The Tribunal rejected this claim and noted that he had pleaded guilty to a criminal offence on the basis of an intentional failure, that knew about the restrictions in place as a result of correspondence from the Law Society and other factors. The Tribunal noted it was not impressed with Mr Kuddus’ lack of candour in stating that he did not appreciate that he was breaking the law.

Mr Kuddus also denied that his conduct did not reflect on his fitness to practise and did not bring the profession into disrepute. The Tribunal noted that “his offending was inextricably linked to the practice of law because he used his status as a lawyer to commit the offence. By trading on that status, he implicated his fellow practitioners”. It noted that the consequences of the conduct for Mr Kuddus demonstrated that he had brought the profession into disrepute, including being asked to stand down from a Muslim trust and having his former university decline to award a mooting shield named after him.

In terms of penalty, the Tribunal noted that Mr Kuddus only had four years’ experience at the time. He did not have any adverse disciplinary findings, but this was unsurprising for a practitioner with his level of experience. The Tribunal noted its concern for his character trait in breaking the law in a way that would offend many people and placing himself about fellow citizens and lawyers. It considered that his boasts on social media were “flagrant boasts about law-breaking”.

Mr Kuddus’s engagement with the disciplinary process was poor and he only engaged shortly before the hearing, which led to increased costs for the Standards Committee. The Tribunal noted that Mr Kuddus had expressed remorse, but it was inclined that he was more remorseful at being caught and still did not appreciate how offensive his conduct was. It noted his conduct and “his subsequent avoidance of its moment brings into question his wisdom, judgement and candour, all features that a person who is fit and proper to have the privileges of an enrolled lawyer should have”.

The Tribunal noted Mr Kuddus’ use of his status as a lawyer to unlawfully cross the border meant that nothing short of a suspension was a proportionate response. It noted that the general population would not be satisfied with anything less and nor would the reputation of the profession be mollified. The Tribunal considered suspension did not need to be for a long period and suspended Mr Kuddus for a period of six weeks, censured him and ordered him to pay costs.