LCRO Duncan Webb resigns!

LCRO Duncan Webb resigns!

The Lawyers and Conyancers Act 2006 replaced the Lay Observer in favour of a new Crown position of “Legal Complaints Review Officer”. Parliament decreed the position was not to be held by a lawyer. This was to ensure the public an unbiased review of their complaints against lawyers to the New Zealand Law Society. Still, the NZLS saw one of its own committee members ( Duncan Webb, pictured) appointed, shrewdly having him relinquish his practicing certificate in order to technically comply with the statutory requirement for the $170,000 – 236,000 a year position.

Two separate judicial reviews (one yet to be filed) by lawyers against Mr Webb now reveal evidence his political appointment has had predictable and scandalous results. It has, this week, resulted in Mr Webb resigning from the post!

The New Zealand Herald has the evidence – fed to it, strangely enough, by the New Zealand Law Society – that an Auckland lawyer is suing the Legal Complaints Review Officer Duncan Webb (pictured) in the High Court for multiple contraventions of the Act which binds him, as well as distorting fact to “unjustly enrich” the NZLS.  No doubt the NZLS thought the Herald reporter would publicly rebuke a lawyer for breaking ranks with the sanctimonious law fraternity.  They may be surprised.

Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb is a former Canterbury University associate professor.

What is apparent from reading the claim is the LCRO is far from an objective reviewer of complaints, as intended by the Act, and he has gone to some unusual lengths to protect the NZLS from accountability.  These actions range from the former Canterbury University “legal ethics” Professor claiming he has no jurisdiction to review decisions by the NZLS to prosecute, exempting the Law Society from responding to reviews, concealing evidence of misconduct by Society-friendly lawyers and using name and detail aliases in some of his reporting – to awarding costs against the complainant and in favour of the Law Society in matters where the Law Society took no active part.

The evidence compellingly indicates that replacing the Lay Observer with the new LCRO has not only resulted in far less accountability of the legal fraternity faithful; it is being used to financially punish citizens who complain against lawyers and as a political tool to attack lawyers critical of the system.

Through his personal assistant, who noted the LCRO is immune from the Official Information Act, Mr Webb has refused to answer questions from kiwisfirst regarding his legal troubles, including his personal metamorphosis into a non-lawyer to fit the legal requirement for the position.

Mr Webb became a Law Society Committee member in 2004.  He was appointed LCRO in 2008.  His Canterbury University profile still trumpets his proud standing as a “Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand”.  He has co-written two books and given numerous lectures about legal ethics throughout New Zealand.  Mr Webb even raised his hand in 2007 to complain current Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson was guilty of legal misconduct in Saxmere v Wool Board, a case which received considerable press last year and could see Wilson the first judge removed from office.  With his stature raised by his noble and articulate stance on Wilson, concern mounted within the Law Society and Crown Law about this naive ethics professor making waves.  In the ‘carrot and stick’ legal culture of New Zealand, Mr Webb needed to be neutralised.   In addition to turning him into a non-lawyer, his current Crown appointment to LCRO has the convenient benefit of preventing him from criticising other Crown officials.

In person Mr Webb comes across more than a bit unsure of himself, yet a person whose efforts to appear meticulously credible is exceeded only by his desire to be liked.  In hearings, his anxious, halting and indecisive style gives the impression that his directions are not coming through his earpiece.  His rulings regularly omit relevant data and claim not to see what the fuss is about.  He audio-records these hearings but refuses to share copies with the parties who appear before him.  His desire to avoid confrontation has him routinely concocting “case to answer hearings”, a legal anomaly run as ex-parte hearings but with no possible outcome other than to decide whether the absent party should show up at some future unscheduled date.

No doubt, this is not what Parliament intended.  After two years at the post, court documents reveal Webb is losing his ability to spin the reviews in contravention of the Act and intent.  One of the court cases against him claims that “in a myriad of cases” LCRO Webb ordered costs to be paid to the Law Society where the Society did not take part in the review proceedings.  It is alleged this is unlawful, as well as an unreasonable attempt to discourage complainants from availing themselves the statutory right of review, particularly against Law Society interests.  The claim – filed 29 January 2010 – seeks an order that all affected parties are entitled a refund.

In another matter last year, Mr Webb dismissed a review on the grounds he did not have jurisdiction to consider a review of a Law Society decision to prosecute a lawyer in the Disciplinary Tribunal.  The matter was before the Courts and the Human Rights Commission.  Several months later, under pressure from a lawyer with a similar complaint who was careful to address all the sections of the governing Act to prevent his legal leapfrog again, Mr Webb was forced to concede he had the statutory authority, if not obligation, to conduct a review.   This prompted the first lawyer to initiate his own High Court action against the LCRO.

Duncan Webb’s transition from legal ethics academic to apparent gatekeeper of the provincial NZ legal club is morally problematic.  But it is a fair question to ask how he let himself get into this predicament.  Mr Webb so firmly pointed the ethical finger at Wilson for not disclosing his conflicts just over 2 years ago.  He preached ethics.  Yet he minimally seems oblivious to both the hypocrisy of his current situation or the ethical dead end garden path his handlers have led him.  By resigning both from the Law Society Committee and as a lawyer simply to evade the statutory pre-requisites imposed to ensure “independence” and “objectivity”, he is already compromised.  Unduly protecting his Law Society mates and covering up corruption are now mere baby steps for this former preacher of everything good and ethical.

Lawyers with an opinion surveyed by kiwisfirst expressed chagrin, resignation or indifference that the new LCRO appointment was appearing to stymie the lawyer complaints process along political lines.  While a couple thought highly of Mr Webb’s academic credentials, not one viewed the replacement of the Lay Observer with the LCRO as a move toward more independent and effective oversight of the legal profession in New Zealand.  More than one were openly cynical that the appearance of the Law Society creating a closed-shop complaint process was not an accident.  The manner in which Mr Webb was appointed and has conducted himself appears to speak for itself.  The news has spread like wildfire through the legal community.  Even if the Herald does not report it, there will likely be an increase in wry smiles at Mr Webb’s future ethics lectures.