A response from the Ministry of Justice yesterday claims a 4 year backlog in determining reviews of New Zealand Law Society decisions by the Legal Complaints Review Officer. The delays indicate serious problems in an oversight body established by statute in 2006, despite significant growth in its funding since inception.
The four year backlog amounts to an effective denial of justice to many who seek remedy through the Legal Complaints Review Office.
By enactment of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, Parliament responded to public concerns that the New Zealand Law Society Standards Committee had become a political animal in determination of complaints against lawyers. Some lawyers were being unduly protected by the Law Society while others were being targeted for minor alleged offences.
A disproportionately large number of Standards Committee members are appointed New Zealand judges. Kiwisfirst reported two years ago that current Chief High Court Justice Helen Winkelmann sought and obtained confidential information from the Standards Committee on complaints it was investigating. Winkelmann’s and the Standards Committee’s unprofessional breach was the subject of a complaint dismissed by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner on the ground what judges do in their spare time is outside his jurisdiciton.
“Independence” meant to Parliament that the Review Officer and Deputy Review Officer should not be members of the Law Society, or even a lawyer. Section 190 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act mandated “A person who is not a lawyer or a conveyancing practitioner is to be appointed to be the Legal Complaints Review Officer”. Notwithstanding this clear language, appointments to the positions have all been lawyers, as well as Law Society volunteers.
Perhaps the most infamous example was the first Review Officer appointee. Duncan Webb (pictured) was a practicing lawyer, a law lecturer on ethics at Canterbury University and a sitting committee member of the NZ Law Society when he was appointed. To meet the statutory requirement, Mr Webb resigned from the committee, ‘parked’ his practicing certificate and became a non-lawyer overnight. Three years later Webb’s advert appeared in the Law Society magazine advertising his legal services as partner of Lane Neave in Christchurch. A subsequent complaint to the Law Society was dismissed. The NZLS.decision.Webb.Complaint.2010 read, “The Standards Committee has considered the first complaint, and has decided to take no action on it, because it does not consider it has jurisdiction to investigate an allegation that a person who, not being a lawyer or an incorporated law firm, describes himself as a lawyer.” The Standards Committee addressed Mr Webb’s copy of their dismissal to him at the law firm Lane Neave.
The NZ Law Society had already reissued Webb’s practicing certificate by the time of their decision but stood adamant on their decision Mr Webb was beyond their jurisdiction at the time he falsely represented himself to be a lawyer.
Duncan Webb has written a book on legal ethics.