Lawyer censured for talking to media
New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal decision released on Tuesday 27 October 2020
The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (administered by the Ministry of Justice) has sent a timely reminder that lawyers must not discuss their clients with the media.
In censuring Christchurch based lawyer Richard Andrew Peters for comments he made to journalists about the terrorist Brenton Tarrant, the Tribunal highlights the fundamental duty lawyers have to “protect and hold in strict confidence all information concerning a client”.
Mr Peters represented Tarrant as duty solicitor, speaking to him by phone after his arrest and appearing for him at his first Court appearance.
Following that, Mr Peters spoke to the media on two occasions. Firstly, with a reporter from the Otago Daily Times in the Court room, then two days later he gave an interview to Radio New Zealand which aired on 19 March 2019.
Mr Peters initially did not consider that he had infringed on the Rules, but subsequently accepted his error. He argued that it amounted to unsatisfactory conduct, rather than misconduct, but the Tribunal disagreed and made a finding of misconduct in its decision dated 20 December 2019.
The Tribunal felt that the error of judgment was “more in the nature of a “reckless disregard” of the Rules, and accordingly misconduct, rather than a simple breach or lapse of professionalism”.
The Tribunal stated further “In doing so he may have damaged the confidence of clients in lawyers generally and therefore has put at risk the reputation of the profession in the eyes of the public”.
“Members of the public must be able to speak with their lawyers with complete confidence and trust that their communications and presentation will remain private. Lawyers must be able to hold to their obligations of confidentiality even in stressful and difficult circumstances.”
In its penalty decision dated 27 October 2020, the Tribunal decided not to suspend Mr Peters, but censured him and ordered him to pay total costs of $13,000.
The liability decision by the Tribunal was made on 20 December 2019, but an order was made to suppress publication of the decision until the conclusion of Mr Tarrant’s case.