A complaint is received by the Law Society's Lawyers Complaints Service. It is first "triaged" by Lawyers Complaints Service staff, then either accepted for Early Resolution or channelled onto the standard track. On the standard track the complaint is copied to the lawyer in question, and the lawyer's response copied to the complainant, before it is considered by the appropriate Lawyers Standards Committee (usually determined by where the lawyer practises).
About 87% of all complaints result in a decision to take "no further action". A Standards Committee may decide no further action is warranted in relation to a complaint on the grounds that a complaint has been withdrawn, is about a trivial matter, is frivolous, vexatious, or made in bad faith, if another remedy is readily available, if the complainant has insufficient interest in the matter, or if – having regard to all the circumstances of the case – any further action is unnecessary or inappropriate. A Committee may decide to inquire further. It can obtain specific information through a Law Society Legal Standards Officer, appoint a costs assessor or an investigator. It may also direct parties to consider mediation, negotiation or conciliation.
A Standards Committee may give further consideration to a complaint if it remains unresolved. It can decide to take no further action at any time, or continue its inquiry – which may involve "setting the matter down for a hearing on the papers".
The Committee may decide to take no further action or may refer the matter to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal. Or a Committee may make a finding of "unsatisfactory conduct" and impose orders. "Unsatisfactory conduct" is conduct by a lawyer that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that can be reasonably expected of competent lawyers, conduct regarded by other lawyers of good standing to be unacceptable, and in contravention of the LCA and Rules of Conduct and Client Care. In deciding which penalty to impose by its order, the Committee will consider any previous matters where findings have been made against the lawyer. Orders may include; censure or reprimand, apology to the complainant, a fine, compensation, reduction, refund or cancellation of fees, ongoing training, or payment of costs. After orders are made, the committee must consider publication of the complaint.
A Committee may direct publication of its decisions and determinations if it considers it necessary or desirable in the public interest. A lawyer's identity may not be disclosed unless a censure order has been made and the Law Society Board approves publication.
All interested parties have a 30 (working) day right of review to the Legal Complaints Review Officer.
The lawyers disciplinary hierarchy
For the most serious breaches of professional standards, Standards Committees can refer a complaint to the quasi-judicial New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (NZLCDT). Standards Committee determinations themselves can be sent to the Legal Complaints Review Officer (LCRO) for review, whereas the judicial hierarchy hears appeals from the NZLCDT.
The LCRO is administered by the Ministry of Justice. Both lawyers and complainants may ask the LCRO to review a Lawyers Standards Committee determination that they disagree with. The LCRO is someone who is not a practising lawyer. They are appointed to provide an independent review of Standards Committee decisions. The LCRO can make any order that a Lawyers Standards Committee can make, including confirming or changing a Committee's decision. The LCRO can also refer a matter to the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal or back to the Standards Committee.
The NZLCDT is administered by the Tribunals Division of the Ministry of Justice. It consists of a chairperson or deputy chairperson, practitioners and lay members. The NZLCDT can make any orders the LCRO or Standards Committees can, but also has the power to suspend and "strike off" – that is, remove a lawyer's name from the Roll of Barristers and Solicitors so that they may no longer practise law. Decisions of the NZLCDT can be appealed through the judicial hierarchy.
The Disciplinary Tribunal says there was a 58% reduction in "cases on hand" in 2014/2015 compared with the previous year.
The High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court may also deal with lawyers disciplinary matters, through judicial review, through appeals or on application by the Law Society.
Tracks a complaint can follow
Below is a flowchart of the tracks a complaint about a lawyer can follow. There are two main tracks – the early resolution track and the standard track. This flowchart also shows that parties can seek a review of a Standards Committee decision with the Legal Complaints Review Officer (LCRO), and that a Standards Committee can refer a matter to the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (NZLCDT). Determinations of the LCRO and the NZLCDT can also be appealed or judicial review sought.