Auckland lawyer Richard Zhao has been censured and suspended from practice for four months from 1 December 2016 by the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.
The Tribunal has found a charge of misconduct against Mr Zhao proven. He has also been ordered to pay the New Zealand Law Society costs of $47,903 and to reimburse hearing costs of $15,508.
Mr Zhao received instructions to act for a client who sought assistance with family, immigration and other issues. His client lived in China and he travelled there to meet her. At his request she paid an initial deposit of $50,000 for fees, expenses and other payments to be used on her behalf. In breach of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 he failed to pay the money into his firm’s trust account until more than six weeks after receipt. During that period the money was held in various personal accounts belonging to him and his wife and a portion of interest attributable to his client was not paid to her. When his client terminated his instructions he failed to promptly return his client’s full file.
The Tribunal found his conduct showed sufficient disregard of his professional and fiduciary obligations to be classified as reckless. It was aggravated by him having overcharged the complainant for the work that he had done for her. Taking all matters into consideration - including that at the hearing he arranged for an immediate repayment to his former client of $42,000 as required by related decisions of the Standards Committee and Legal Complaints Review Officer - a four month suspension was considered appropriate.
Mr Zhao has challenged decisions arising from the investigation and prosecution of this matter and those proceedings have a hearing date in the High Court on 7 March 2017.