New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers Complaints Service: Suspended for filing incorrect memorandum

Lawyers Complaints Service: Suspended for filing incorrect memorandum

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Susan Barbara Lewis of Christchurch has been suspended from practice as both a barrister and a solicitor for six months with effect from 26 May 2015.

In [2015] NZLCDT 18, the Tribunal found Ms Lewis guilty of unsatisfactory conduct.

While acting for a party in Family Court proceedings, Ms Lewis filed a memorandum in court which contained incorrect information.

The memorandum dealt with parenting arrangements for a child of the parties to the proceedings. Ms Lewis was acting for the mother.

The memorandum set out what Ms Lewis represented as agreed and consented variations to an interim court order. However counsel for the father and counsel for the child both stated that they had not been consulted about the matter of the memorandum. They had neither agreed to, nor consented to the filing of the memorandum and had not been provided with a copy of it.

The presiding Family Court Judge made an order based on the contents of Ms Lewis’s memorandum and had later to revoke it after counsel for the father had filed her memorandum.

“Having considered the totality of the evidence, the Tribunal concludes that the memorandum created by the respondent stated a position that was not correct and in particular that there was no agreement between counsel and the parties,” the Tribunal said.

“The memorandum also clearly implied that it had been copied to other counsel. It had not been.”

The question then became whether Ms Lewis’s conduct was misleading or deceptive.

“The memorandum was incorrect and misled the Court into making an order which later had to be revoked,” the Tribunal said. “Viewed on its own, the content of the memorandum would lead to a conclusion that the document was intended to mislead the Court.

“There has to be an element of knowledge or intention on the part of a lawyer before a finding can be made that a lawyer has misled or deceived a Court or some evidence of reckless disregard as to the accuracy of the information conveyed to the Court.

“Having heard from the respondent, the Tribunal concludes that the respondent believed in the correctness of the content of her memorandum but that she was wrong to do so.”

Having found that Ms Lewis did not intend to mislead the Court, Ms Lewis’s offending was regarded by the Tribunal as not reaching the higher end of culpability.

“She had succumbed to the pressure from her client and did not stand back to ensure that what she had set out in the memorandum was factually correct. We do not find that there was any kind of moral lapse on her part.”

However, the Tribunal said it was concerned “that the respondent has displayed conduct which is not dissimilar to the conduct referred to in the earlier disciplinary matters involving her and notably in family law.

“It arises from her becoming too closely aligned with the interests of her client(s), and responding to client demands impulsively especially in situations of perceived emergency.

“The Tribunal concludes that the respondent has yet to learn from past errors and mistakes such that a period of suspension from practice is the appropriate penalty that must be imposed,” the Tribunal said.

The Tribunal also ordered Ms Lewis to pay the Law Society $6,292.50 lawyers standards committee costs and $3,086 Tribunal costs.

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