Failing to comply with orders of a Standards Committee and failing to respond to inquires from the Standards Committee has led to a two month suspension for Papakura lawyer Robert John Burton (Mr Burton). The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) found suspension was necessary to maintain public confidence in the profession and deter other lawyers from thinking Standards Committee orders could be taken lightly. Mr Burton was also censured, ordered to engage in a supervision arrangement for six months following his return to practice and ordered to pay costs.
Mr Burton was the administrator and solicitor for an estate that was expected to have been wound up by October 2019. Following a complaint from one of the beneficiaries in December 2019 when this did not occur, the Standards Committee found that Mr Burton had engaged in unsatisfactory conduct, and ordered him to distribute the estate within two months. When the first order was not complied with, the Standards Committee made a second determination of unsatisfactory conduct, and ordered Mr Burton to complete the distribution by 7 February 2022. When Mr Burton failed to comply with the second order, the Committee opened an own motion investigation, which led to the Committee making three requests in relation to Mr Burton, including asking him to nominate three lawyers who could assist with his practice, to meet with a subcommittee and to engage with a lawyer to advance the distribution of the estate. The Committee made 15 attempts to contact Mr Burton in relation to these requests, but Mr Burton failed to engage with the Committee and respond to the requests.
Mr Burton accepted he was guilty of two charges of misconduct based on the above and therefore the sole issue before the Tribunal was the appropriate penalty. The Tribunal noted that failing to engage with one’s professional body and to promptly comply with order made its disciplinary arm must always be treated seriously. It noted that public confidence in the legal profession would reduce if there is a failure to meet such actions or omissions with a significant response. The Tribunal observed that Mr Burton had been a valuable and long serving member of the profession but it was troubled by a pattern of behaviour that may be emerging at the late stages of his 52 year career. At the suggestion of the Tribunal, Mr Burton found a supervisor who was willing to assist him with his practice.
In determining the appropriate penalty, the Tribunal took into account a number of mitigating factors including Mr Burton’s poor health and his commitment to caring for his wife during her periods of illness. It accepted that at times, his focus had moved away from his practice. Mr Burton was also given “considerable credit” for his extraordinarily long and, until recently, unblemished career. It was clear from his evidence and references provided that he had made a huge contribution to his local community by providing low fees and often working for clients pro bono. Mr Burton’s willingness to work with a supervisor also weighed in his favour.
The Tribunal considered that to maintain public confidence in the profession and to deter other lawyers from thinking orders of the Standards Committee can be taken lightly, a short period of suspension was necessary. The Tribunal suspended Mr Burton for a period of two months. He was also censured and required to engage in a supervision arrangement for six months following the conclusion of the period of suspension. The Tribunal awarded costs, but declined to fine Mr Burton, noting his modest financial circumstances.