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Private investigators on the case

05 May 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Life as a private investigator isn’t just about tracking cheating spouses or sitting in cars taking long-range photos. We talk to three private investigators who work closely with the legal profession.

Interviewing witnesses in prison, surveillance operations and serving legal documents are just some of the tasks Auckland-based private investigator Anna Jeffs has undertaken for lawyers.

Ms Jeffs says working with lawyers is a “massive” part of her job. She’s worked on criminal cases ranging from minor assaults, sexual assaults, drug operations and high-profile murder cases. Her work might include tracking down and interviewing witnesses for criminal defence counsel, taking photographs of crime scenes, obtaining CCTV footage, and providing jury trial booklets on her findings. “I’ll also provide witness summons, help liaise with witnesses and make sure they’re attending court – so I work very, very closely with lawyers in that regard.”

Ms Jeffs, who worked in the legal profession prior to founding Fox Private Investigators in 2013, also does prison visits for lawyers. “They might ask me to go to Paremoremo Prison or Mt Eden Prison in order to interview a witness in custody, or alternatively go and see the accused in custody.”

It’s not all criminal cases though, with insurance investigations and employment issues also part of the mix. “For example, where someone has a restraint of trade and they might be working for another company, then we’ll often conduct surveillance and provide that information to the clients and to the lawyer,” Ms Jeffs says.

Knowledge of the law

Private investigators are bound by the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010 and don’t have any special powers to circumvent any laws.

“We don’t have any more rights than members of the general public do,” says Ms Jeffs. “We just have different ways of finding out information.”

She says it’s important that private investigators have a good working knowledge of the law. “It’s imperative that we are aware of legislation and court proceedings, and really ensure that all of our investigations work – taking statements, surveillance, and producing evidence that is relevant and admissible in the legal proceedings.”

Respectful relationships

Ross McQuilter, who runs Auckland-based private investigations company Paragon, says senior lawyers know the value of good private investigators, but junior lawyers are not always as open to using them. “We usually get engaged by partners, the ones who have been around the block and know the value.” He would like to see law schools include a couple of sessions with a private investigator so that young lawyers can see what PI’s do.

Mr McQuilter thinks private investigators bring a different perspective to a legal team. “Lawyers think differently to us. They see things that we don’t see, but conversely, we see things that they don’t see.”

His legal clients are mainly commercial litigation lawyers. “The lawyers that use us would be commercial lawyers who are involved in some big litigation and they need people on their side, whether it is doing investigation or interviewing witnesses. A lot of trademark lawyers use us, to find out if someone is using a trademark.”

The New Zealand police and judiciary treat private investigators with respect, according to Mr McQuilter. “When you stand up in court and say you’re an investigator, the judiciary look upon you – so do the lawyers in the case – as if you are a credible person. If you go to London and say you’re a PI, they’ll look at you and ask who you’ve been bugging.”

It works both ways

It’s not just lawyers hiring private investigators, sometimes investigators also need help from a lawyer to resolve a tricky situation for a client.

Julia Hartley Moore has been a private investigator for 21 years and runs Arbeth & Co in Auckland. She works mainly with high-net worth clients and says having lots of money often leads people into all sorts of “scrapes and situations”. Like being blackmailed. Typically that involves a client being asked for money by someone they’ve had an affair with.

Ms Hartley Moore says often in this kind of situation clients go to a private investigator, rather than the police, as they want a discreet way of dealing with the extortion. “It’s all about never having it out in the public arena. They know that by coming to us, we’re going to deal with it.”

She says in cases like this, the help of a good lawyer is essential. “That [blackmail] is a big thing we’ve noticed that we’re doing more and more of and we need legal advice and legal help obviously for cases like that. We are needing lawyers as lawyers are needing us.”

Auckland barrister Ross Knight, who specialises in relationship property and trust law, has advised many of Ms Hartley Moore’s clients and engaged her services to assist his clients as well.

He says a private investigator can be a useful part of a lawyer’s team, particularly when it comes to tracing finances after a relationship has broken down. “Julia is certainly one of the people that I have within my toolbox of experts to assist me in the gathering of important information, either in the lead-up to a breakdown in a relationship or after a separation.

“Specifically, she has assisted time and again in highlighting or uncovering instances of what I would call financial infidelity, where relationship funds have been diverted.”

What makes a good PI?

To become licensed, private investigators need to apply to the Ministry of Justice’s Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Licensing Authority. In terms of training and education, though, there is no clear pathway. The local industry tends to be dominated by ex-police or ex-military personnel, or people from the legal profession.

In terms of skills, Mr McQuilter says the number one trait investigators need is the ability to interview people. “If you’re a great interviewer, you’ll be a great PI.”

He cites a case where he was approached by a lawyer about a case of employee theft. The lawyer had interviewed the employee, who admitted to an $18,000 theft. “They [the lawyer] wanted us to go to the police and lodge a complaint.” However, Mr McQuilter says he could see the interview hadn’t been carried out the way he would do it, so he asked to interview the employee as well. “A trained investigator will look at different things than a lawyer will when it comes to interviewing suspects.”

It turns out the theft was much larger than expected and Mr McQuilter says as a result of the fresh interview, $1 million was recovered for the client. “Recovery is a big thing. The police have restorative justice, but you don’t get your money back.”

An ability to interact well with people from all walks of life is another desirable trait for private investigators, says Anna Jeffs. “I work with QCs and with big law firms, small law firms, and then you have to go and talk to people who are alleged possible violent offenders. You have to adapt to your environment and treat all people with respect regardless.”

If you fancy a career change and think the life of a private investigator sounds tempting, be warned, getting a foot in the door as a newcomer is tricky, as clients want experienced hands dealing with their cases, as Mr McQuilter notes. “When a lawyer engages a private investigator they want the job done well the first time, in a timely, professional matter… there’s no room for apprentices.”

Last updated on the 5th May 2017