New Zealand Law Society - Reprimanded for breaching confidentiality

Reprimanded for breaching confidentiality

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A lawyer, C, who sent a woman’s will to her husband without the woman’s consent, has been reprimanded by a lawyers standards committee and ordered to pay the woman $5,000 compensation.

The LCRO increased this to $6,000 on review and confirmed the committee’s decision to reprimand C.

Mr and Mrs B decided to sell a property they jointly owned and Mr B met C at the offices of the firm, which had acted for them on the purchase of the property. Mrs B was not present at the meeting.

During the meeting, Mr B asked if the wills of himself and his wife, which they had executed at the firm, were still on file and was told that they were. Mr B asked for some paperwork to be emailed to him.

C instructed her law clerk to send both Mr and Mrs B’s wills as attachments to Mr B’s email address. The standards committee noted that it was uncontested that no contact was made with Mrs B to check if the release of her will to her husband was acceptable.

As a result of the disclosure, Mr B became aware of a provision in Mrs B’s will that he was not previously aware of.

Mrs B was extremely distressed and angry at what she described as a “very serious” breach of confidentiality and the damage that had caused to a marriage of 44 years.

The committee noted Mrs B’s description of the consequences of breach, which led to her experiencing considerable turmoil.

Mrs B “was entitled absolutely to confidentiality surrounding her will,” the committee said. “She recounted having instructed her lawyer at the time of making her will that it be marked to the effect ‘private and confidential, to be opened only in the event of my death’, of which there is no record, but her will is in any case private and confidential and any such instruction would be superfluous.

“By sending Mrs [B]’s will to anyone without her instructions to do so, [C] breached her obligations under Chapter 8 RCCC and has done so to such a degree as to be guilty of unsatisfactory conduct.”

The committee also said it found Mrs B was harmed by the breach of confidentiality.

As well as the reprimand and compensation order, the committee ordered C to apologise to Mrs B in writing for the unsatisfactory conduct and to pay the Law Society $1,000 costs.

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