New Zealand Law Society - Legal profession upholding high standards, says Tribunal

Legal profession upholding high standards, says Tribunal

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New Zealand's legal profession appears to be upholding the high professional standards required of lawyers, the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal says.

In its annual report for the year to 30 June 2018, the Tribunal says the consumer focus of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 is a consistent theme in its determinations and appellate court decisions.

"The Act would appear to be achieving its aims in this regard, but also in ensuring the continuing high reputation of the profession. It is well understood that the reputation of the legal profession is its greatest asset and that there is a collective responsibility amongst lawyers to uphold professional standards.

"As stated in one of the leading cases in lawyers' discipline, a person entrusting a lawyer with possibly the most important transaction or problem of a lifetime, must be able to trust that lawyer 'to the ends of the earth' (Bolton v Law Society [1994] 2 All ER 486)

"As at 30 June 2018 there were 14,177 lawyers holding practising certificates. The very small number of lawyers (less than 0.2%) appearing before the Tribunal in comparison with the total number of lawyers practising in New Zealand suggests that these high standards are being upheld," the report says.

Tribunal workload

The Tribunal describes the reporting year as a relatively quiet one in terms of new filings. In the year to 30 June 2018,  it received 26 new cases and disposed of 35 cases. At the end of the year, 21 cases were on hand.

Of the 26 new cases filed, 24 were charges involving 21 lawyers or former lawyers and 2 were applications to practise on own account.

The 35 cases disposed comprised 31 involving charges against a total of 27 lawyers or former lawyers, 2 were appeals against the declining or refusal to issue a practising certificate, and 2 were applications to practise on own account.

Of the 31 cases disposed of, the charges were admitted in 12, the charges were proven following a defended hearing in 12, the charges were proven following a formal proof hearing in 2, the charges were dismissed in 1, and in 4 cases the charges were withdrawn at the request of the lawyers standards committee.

During the period, 7 appeals were filed in the High Court. Of those determined during the period, one was withdrawn, one was abandoned, and one was struck out. There are five appeals awaiting final determination.

Penalty orders made by Tribunal, year to 30 June 2018

Type of order Number
Censure 11
Not able to practise on own account 2
Pay compensation/refund monies paid 4
Pay/contribute to New Zealand Law Society costs 24
Pay fine to the New Zealand Law Society 5
Reimburse New Zealand Law Society for Tribunal costs 23
Restriction on employment 1
Struck off the roll of barristers and solicitors 5
Supervision in respect of trust account management 1
Suspended from practice 10
Undergo training 2

Problem with complaints process

While noting that 2017/18 was a relatively quiet one for filings, the Tribunal says it can hardly be said to have been a quiet year for the legal profession.

"The reported surveys conducted by the New Zealand Law Society and other professional organisations revealed a staggeringly high proportion of practitioners having experienced sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.

"Given that the Tribunal has never been asked to consider a case of this nature in which the complainant was a practitioner (rather than a client), it would seem axiomatic that there is a problem with the complaints process in this sensitive area. The Tribunal is unaware if any complaints have been considered at a lower level because standards committee proceedings are normally private.

"It is commendable that the New Zealand Law Society moved so quickly to appoint a working group to investigate this area of concern. We note that the report back to the New Zealand Law Society proposes significant changes to the complaints process, indeed a separate track for sensitive complaints. This is a matter for the legislature, but if the expertise which resides in the Tribunal's membership can be of assistance in discussing any proposals for change, we are willing to assist."

And, we are separate from the Law Society...

The Tribunal ends its report with another request (following one made in its last report) for the news media to recognise that it is quite separate from the New Zealand Law Society.

"We note ... that the news media, and even members of the legal profession can refer to the Tribunal as the 'Law Society Discplinary Tribunal', or similar, which tends to confuse the independent nature and role of the Tribunal.

"There could perhaps be greater recognition by the media that we operate as a separate judicial body outside the regulatory organisations we oversee. That separation enhances public confidence in the disciplinary regime applicable to lawyers and conveyancers."