Six months' suspension for false will

A senior Dunedin lawyer has been suspended from practising for six months after admitting to falsifying a will by backdating it.

Helen Davidson, who unsuccessfully sought name suppression when she appeared before the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, was suspended for six months and ordered to pay $18,644 in costs to the Law Society and Crown.

The disciplinary hearing was on December 17 at Dunedin International Airport with the suspension beginning shortly after. It will end on June 13.

The tribunal noted she had made ''no personal gain'' from her misconduct.

The allegation came to light ''months after'' the incident happened, when the daughter of the woman whose will was falsified told another lawyer about the backdating, with that lawyer, in turn, notifying the Law Society, which launched an investigation.

It is understood Ms Davidson is on extended leave from her central-city employer, Polson McMillan Lawyers, and attempts to contact her yesterday were unsuccessful. A partner in the firm, David Polson, said when contacted Ms Davidson would be returning to work at the end of June, and her clients were being looked after by the firm in the meantime.

According to a New Zealand Law Society report on the hearing, Ms Davidson was ''instructed'' by a family member to prepare a ''revised will'' for a woman in residential care, possibly because the woman ''may no longer have testamentary capacity''.

A daughter of the woman suggested to Ms Davidson the will's execution be backdated ''to avoid any argument with the Public Trustee'', about the woman's testamentary capacity. The daughter noted that the Public Trustee ''was being replaced'', the report said.

Weeks earlier, a GP had provided a medical certificate, regarding the woman's capacity for enduring power of attorney, which was granted to a son-in-law.

''[The woman's daughter] considered there was a risk that the GP's certificate might cause the Public Trustee to question the validity of the revised will and to suggest that the will it held should prevail,'' the Law Society reported.

Ms Davidson ''deliberately backdated'' the revised will to ''a false date'' when it was executed, the society reported.

Submissions to the tribunal on Ms Davidson's behalf were that the backdating was an error of judgement, she made no personal gain, but had ''succumbed on the spur of the moment'' to family pressure to ensure the Public Trustee was replaced.

The tribunal was reported to have said it did not consider Ms Davidson's actions to be a ''momentary lapse in judgement'', but a ''deliberate decision taken for a particular purpose''.

The tribunal said ''the appropriate regulatory response to this misconduct is removal from practice'' with suspension of ''at least 12 months'' the starting point.

However, because of Ms Davidson's ready acknowledgement'' of wrongdoing, co-operation with the investigating standards committee and her ''remorse and contrition'', she was suspended for six months, and ordered to pay Crown and Law Society costs.

Ms Davidson's application for permanent name suppression was declined, the tribunal saying she had not made a sufficient case to displace the usual openness of the tribunal process.

- simon.hartley@odt.co.nz

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