New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers Complaints Service: Censure for failing to honour undertaking

Lawyers Complaints Service: Censure for failing to honour undertaking

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Jane Maree Stevenson has been censured by a lawyers standards committee for failing to honour an undertaking she gave.

Ms Stevenson gave a written undertaking to hold the balance of sale funds from the sale of a relationship property asset.

However, she released $12,000 to her client so he could clear a credit card debt which had gone to debt collection and which the parties had agreed was relationship property.

On discovering this, the lawyer for the other party suggested to Ms Stevenson that a similar amount should be released to his client so she could also pay a pressing relationship property debt. Ms Stevenson declined to do so.

“Ms Stevenson’s conduct amounted to unsatisfactory conduct by a significant margin,” the standards committee said.

“Indeed it considered that her actions were so serious that a decision to lay charges against her was avoided by a small margin.”

Ms Stevenson told the committee that she has never intentionally breached an undertaking and regretted the circumstances that resulted in the breach. She also confirmed that she had referred the file to another practitioner.

The committee noted that the lawyer for the other party had sought compensation for a number of matters. However the committee was not satisfied that compensation was appropriate for all the costs claimed, or that they were caused as a result of an action or omission by Ms Stevenson.

However, it considered that additional legal fees were incurred as a result of the breach of the undertaking and these would have approached approximately $3,000, GST exclusive.

It therefore ordered Ms Stevenson to pay the separated wife of her client $3,000 compensation.

The committee also ordered publication of Ms Stevenson’s name for a number of reasons, including:

  • undertakings are a fundamental part of a lawyers practice and they are relied on by the public and lawyers alike – compliance with an undertaking is therefore one of the core obligations imposed on a lawyer
  • it is in the public interest to publish the facts and Ms Stevenson’s name in order to inform and educate the public and the profession of the detrimental consequences that may follow should a lawyer breach an undertaking;
  • Ms Stevenson had failed to fully appreciate the seriousness of her actions by launching a misguided cross complaint against the lawyer for the other party, repeatedly attempting to minimise the seriousness of her actions and by failing to offer an appropriate apology for her breach. This calls into question her ability to fully understand the significance of her professional obligations in this area and it is therefore important that the public and her fellow lawyers are aware of the facts of this matter and her name, to inform and protect them in relation to any future dealings with her; and
  • it would assist in enhancing the public confidence in the provision of legal services by showing that such conduct was not acceptable.
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