New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer suspended for two years for failing vulnerable clients

Lawyer suspended for two years for failing vulnerable clients

Failing to act in a timely and competent manner, failing to secure client files and documents, and providing regulated services to the public other than in the course of her employment has led to a suspension of two years for former lawyer Raminderjit Kaur Dhillon (Ms Dhillon). The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) found two charges of misconduct and one of unsatisfactory conduct proven, and that the conduct overall warranted a lengthy suspension given its duration and the serious consequences for Ms Dhillon’s clients.

Between February 2015 and April 2019, Ms Dhillon worked for a barrister as an employed barrister. Her employer did mostly criminal and civil matters. Ms Dhillon asked her employer if she could do immigration matters and her employer found someone who could supervise that work (as he himself did not have the experience to do so). Ms Dhillon, however, did not seek the assistance of the proposed supervisor (other than attending a single hearing with them). Ms Dhillon became very busy with immigration work and leased an office in Auckland to assist with client consultation (her employer being based in a nearby city). At the Auckland premises, the phone was still answered with the name of the employer’s chambers and invoices went out in the employer’s name.

Three clients approached Ms Dhillon in 2018 seeking assistance in relation to their immigration status, specifically to request a special visa under s 61 of the Immigration Act 2009 to regularise their unlawful visa status. Ms Dhillon told each of the three clients that she had lodged the s 61 application, but Ms Dhillon either did not do so or failed to follow up with Immigration NZ (INZ) to confirm that they had received the application. There were other issues with the applications filed, including providing incomplete and inaccurate information. Ms Dhillon also failed to respond to requests for updates from the clients. The Tribunal found that Ms Dhillon’s failure to act competently and to complete the retainer was reckless and made a finding of misconduct.

Ms Dhillon also failed to securely maintain client files. When she left the chambers to live in Australia, her employer could not find any electronic files and only a few hard copy documents. This created issues for her clients as some of them were seeking the return of their documents, including passports and educational certificates. The Tribunal found Ms Dhillon’s failure in this respect amounted to unsatisfactory conduct.

The Tribunal found that Ms Dhillon had engaged in misconduct by providing regulated services to the public other than in the course of her employment. While documents were sent on Ms Dhillon’s employer’s letterhead and fees were paid through that practice, the work being done was outside the scope of Ms Dhillon’s employment and she was effectively practising on her own account. Ms Dhillon acknowledged that she worked “autonomously” on immigration matters and would seek assistance from colleagues and INZ when needed.

In assessing penalty, the Tribunal held the conduct was relatively serious given the length of time over which the conduct continued and the serious consequences for the clients. Given Ms Dhillon’s age and level of experience, the Tribunal decided that a strike off was not appropriate. The Tribunal noted that Ms Dhillon said she had paid insufficient attention to “administrative” matters and this suggested a misunderstanding of the lawyer/client relationship and the need to promptly report and respond to client inquiries (which is not merely an administrative duty). As Ms Dhillon chose not to participate in the proceedings, the Tribunal was unable to assess rehabilitative pathways. Overall, a lengthy period of suspension was considered appropriate and the Tribunal ordered that Ms Dhillon be suspended for a period of two years. Ms Dhillon was also ordered to pay costs.