Standards committees play a vital role in the co-regulatory model governing lawyers’conduct. Under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, standards committees are responsible for investigating and deciding on the outcome of complaints made about lawyers.
There are 22 standards committees across Aotearoa New Zealand made up of lawyers and lay people appointed by the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa. Everyone on a standards committee is a volunteer and appointed for their skills and experience. Law Society staff support the standards committees in carrying out their functions.
The reputation of the legal profession strongly depends on how well it is able to deal with the maintenance and enforcement of professional standards. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 shifted focus from solely on lawyers’ fitness to practice under the Law Practitioners Act 1982, to include and prioritise protection of the New Zealand public.
The committees make ethical determinations about the conduct of lawyers. Their decisions provide important guidance about what conduct is deemed unsatisfactory, or possibly misconduct and needs to be referred to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal. Only the Tribunal, administered by the Ministry of Justice, may make a finding of misconduct and suspend a lawyer or strike them from the Roll of Barristers and Solicitors.
Giving back to the profession
One way that Kevin Clay and Anthony Jackson have found to give back to the profession is through helping standards committees as Cost Assessors. From time to time, they will be asked by a standards committee to consider a matter involving costs of legal services and report to the committee their findings.
“I think it’s part of our obligation as practising lawyers to give back to the Law Society and to give back to our profession,” Kevin says.
“That part of it is certainly not onerous; after all, we’re providing a service to our community and our society.”
Kevin’s background is in litigation. After being a partner of a law firm for 10 years, he moved to the Bar in 2005, and now practises out of Clarendon Chambers in Christchurch. He often draws upon his experience in litigation practice when writing reports as requested by the Standards Committee.
“Practising as a barrister has been of assistance because you are considering disputes which have arisen between the practitioner and client, and then applying the criteria under the rules and relevant case law to arrive at recommendations in the report to the Committee.”
Playing a role for the committees is also an opportunity to look after problems that crop up in the profession, Anthony says. For him, its a very rewarding experience.
“I’m driven by the general principle of being helpful, which is how I was raised. It’s a privilege to do this kind of work for the profession, because if we weren’t to do it, the regulatory responsibility would be handed elsewhere.”
Anthony too has a background in relatively large litigation practice, often preparing estimates and cost estimates. “It opens your eyes as to what things actually cost, giving you a good idea on whether costs were necessary and if fees are justifiable.”
Lawyers understand lawyers
Being part of the complaints process is a task not to be taken lightly, Kevin says. “You are asked to report on a practitioner’s conduct in which clients are entitled to have professional standards met. On the other hand, the issues that clients raise may be unfounded for various reasons. Practising lawyers are in an excellent position to assess what has occurred. This is important because the reports can have significant implications for the parties.
“On the other side of the coin the client is entitled to have standards met, balancing the two involves care and coming to a decision in the report which you are comfortable with. You have to be objective and apply the criteria, and through that process you come up with a decision or a report.”
In applying the rules, it’s understandable that lawyers enduring a complaint or investigation may not like dealing with standards committees. However, in both Kevin and Anthony’s experience lawyers appreciate having a fellow practitioner carry out the assessment.
“It’s generally a misnomer that a practitioner might be annoyed that another practitioner is looking into them” Anthony says. “Every time I contact practitioners, there’s a moment where they’re not sure what to say, but they’re aware there’s a delegated authority from the Act. But they realise they have someone who knows what it’s like to be a lawyer.”
Balancing commitments to professional standards
Becoming involved in the regulatory regime offers a lot of benefits. It is a new area of law to work on, so aids professional development. It contributes to the professional community – which is a question raised for those who seek to apply for elevated roles such as Queen’s Counsel. It’s also a way of helping find resolutions to difficulties lawyers face in practise, as not every investigation or report will result in a finding.
Assisting a standards committee takes time, which is undoubtedly necessary, Kevin asserts.
“It can involve a lot of work. It has impacted my practice on occasions but after all, I think that’s just part of what we should be doing.”
Anthony says he typically takes on one or two cases per year. While the case number may not be too onerous, the work involved can be, but he’s able to choose his own hours.
“There is a a timeframe which is set by the Standards Committee, however that can be extended if required” Kevin says.
Playing a part in the co-regulatory environment is one way lawyers can make sure the profession continues to support the confidence members of the public have in their legal services. Operating the standards committees depends upon lawyers putting their hands up to work in this area to ensure the regulation of lawyers is kept in a close connection. The alternative is that another regulator steps in. As Kevin says, this can be another debate.
If you’re interested in applying to sit on a Standards Committee, or like Kevin and Anthony, to help out with Cost Assessing work or investigations visit our Get involved page.