Greymouth lawyer Anthony George Whitcombe has been fined a total of $10,000 and censured after admitting two charges before the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.
The charges arose after Mr Whitcombe agreed to act for both the seller and purchaser of a property who were well known to each other and to Mr Whitcombe. He failed to obtain informed consent or a waiver from either client, gave neither client advice of the need or desirability of taking independent legal advice, and did not obtain or seek an independent valuation of the property. The agreement which Mr Whitcombe prepared had a number of serious defects and the sale did not proceed as planned.
The Tribunal found that Mr Whitcombe’s actions were neither a wilful nor reckless disregard of the Rule of Conduct and Client Care. Instead, he had blurred the boundaries between his personal and professional relationship and had been too willing to help implement the agreement without considering the implications of the conflict it provided.
“We considered that this particular conduct, occurring as it did in a small town with few legal representatives available to the parties, was a one-off for this practitioner and not an example of his usual practice, rather than a wilful or reckless ignoring of his obligations,” the Tribunal said.
The level of negligence with the sale transaction was at a high level and must be viewed as relatively serious, it said. However, the Tribunal said Mr Whitcombe was entitled to considerable credit for a career of some 30 years without any previous disciplinary findings against him. He was also practising in a region which was under-resourced with lawyers and fulfilled a role as a diligent practitioner for the community, particularly practising in branches of law which many lawyers avoid. No dishonesty or personal gain was involved, and Mr Whitcombe took responsibility at an early date.
The Tribunal said it was not necessary to suspend Mr Whitcombe. It imposed a fine of $8,000 on the first charge and $2,000 on the second, as well as a censure. He is also required to pay total costs of $17,551.