New Zealand Law Society - Unprofessional interaction with college board

Unprofessional interaction with college board

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The name used in this article is fictitious

A lawyer who failed to maintain proper standards of professionalism in his interactions with a college board of trustees has been censured and fined $1,500 by a lawyers standards committee.

After his brother – a teacher at the college – was dismissed, the lawyer, Drummle, attended a number of board of trustees meetings, and corresponded with the board and three former board members.

Drummle’s letters were on his firm’s letterhead and his emails used the firm’s email address and footer. One email said he was writing as instructing solicitor to his brother’s barrister. Another referred to his brother as “our client” and a third stated he had “standing instructions”.

Around 10 months after Drummle began attending the board meetings, the board passed a resolution prohibiting members of the public from making audio recordings of board meetings.

In response, Drummle placed a dictaphone on a table at the meeting and declined to answer questions from board members as to whether the device was operating.

Following a second similar incident, the board served Drummle a trespass notice.

Drummle sought a judicial review of the board’s decision to issue a trespass notice. In an unsuccessful interlocutory application, the judge described Drummle’s “fake recording” of the two meetings as “provocative and disorderly and frankly, extraordinarily immature for a man of [Drummle’s] standing, age and profession”.

“Provocative and disorderly”

Some weeks later, Drummle was successful in his judicial review application with the High Court finding the board’s trespass notice was ultra vires. The judge, however, said he was satisfied the board’s decision was not unreasonable as he considered Drummle’s behaviour to have been provocative and disorderly. “The evidence showed that [Drummle] deliberately disregarded the authority of the board,” the judge said.

The board complained to the Lawyers Complaints Service that Drummle had breached rules 10 and 11 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008.

These rules provide that a lawyer must promote and maintain proper standards of professionalism in the lawyer’s dealings; and a lawyer’s practice must be administered in a manner that ensures that the duties to the court and existing, prospective and former clients are adhered to, and that the reputation of the legal profession is preserved.

The standards committee said it considered the board was reasonable in identifying that Drummle was acting in a professional capacity. In addition, Drummle’s conduct could attract a finding of unsatisfactory conduct irrespective of whether it occurred while providing regulated services.

The committee said it considered Drummle had engaged in a “sustained campaign” against the board, which overlapped with the employment dispute.

“It considered that [Drummle] had taken issue with frivolous matters in a particularly strident and forceful manner, which would have been likely to lead to the incurrence of unnecessary cost to the [board], and that it reflected poorly on [Drummle] and the profession.”

The letters Drummle sent, particularly those sent to former board members, were “unnecessarily intimidating, discourteous and inappropriate”.

The committee also considered Drummle’s conduct in relation to the use of the dictaphone at board meetings was “unprofessional and showed poor judgement on [Drummle]’s part. This was exacerbated by the fact that this was repeated on two occasions.”

Drummle failed to promote and maintain proper standards of professionalism and preserve the reputation of the legal profession in breach of rules 10 and 11, the committee said, making a finding of unsatisfactory conduct.

As well as the censure and $1,500 fine, the committee ordered Drummle to pay $750 costs.

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