Orewa lawyer Murray Bryce Lawes has been suspended by the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal from practising for three months from 8 October 2019.
In a decision on liability on 19 July 2019 the Tribunal had found him guilty of two charges of misconduct. The first related to management of his trust account and the second to charging a fee to an estate which was not his client and refusing to refund it on request of the estate’s solicitors.
As well as the suspension, the Tribunal ordered Mr Lawes not to practise on his own account pending further order, to refund the fee to the estate, and to compensate the complainants for their legal costs. It has reserved its decision on Mr Lawes’ liability for costs.
The Tribunal said while the trust account breaches did not involve any dishonesty or put clients’ funds at risk, cumulatively they demonstrated a reckless disregard of the relevant rules. The other charge related to the invoicing of an estate was also of serious concern. Although the conduct was not at the high end of misconduct, two separate findings of misconduct are a serious matter. Mr Lawes’ previous disciplinary record included sanctions for similar conduct.
It was accepted that there was no wilful breach or dishonesty and Mr Lawes had been at all times responsive to and cooperative with the Tribunal process. The Tribunal also noted that Mr Lawes said he had not had longer than one week a year away from his practice in the last 10 years. It considered his focus on his clients’ concerns rather than prioritising matters of administration and his own wellbeing may well have contributed to his current failings.
The Tribunal said Mr Lawes had advised it that he has decided to retire from legal practice and to train in another career. This had taken longer than anticipated and he had clearly worked to the point of exhaustion where he appeared unable to effectively advance the wind up of his practice unassisted. It considered that having regard to the level of seriousness found, anything less than a suspension would not be a proportionate response in terms of the protection of the public.
The Tribunal's penalty decision is available here.