Lawyer fined for crossing legal line

Russell Mawhinney
Russell Mawhinney
A Queenstown lawyer, censured and ordered to pay a total of $16,319.50 in penalties and costs after admitting misconduct, says he "crossed the line" and was "not likely to do it again".

Preston Russell Law solicitor Russell Mawhinney, also a Queenstown Lakes district councillor, admitted the charge after a complaint by a former client about his "continuing failure to supply files to her", despite repeated requests.

Ultimately, Mr Mawhinney twice advised the woman by email he would supply the files provided she paid $80.50 to cover photocopying and postage and "immediately withdraw" the complaint.

It was the latter requirement which led to the charge of misconduct.

Speaking to the Otago Daily Times yesterday, Mr Mawhinney said he acted for the woman in 2003 and did "a fair amount of work", for which he was not paid.

"And then she just disappeared off the face of the earth."

Mr Mawhinney said "five or six years later" the woman emailed and asked to uplift the documents. He replied and stated she could have the documents on payment of her outstanding account.

No further correspondence was received until about a year later, when another email from the woman was sent to Mr Mawhinney, again asking for the documents.

"She got the same reply.

"She took the complaint to the Law Society and by that time she'd gone bankrupt.

"I emailed her and said, 'You can have them, pay the photocopying and postage money and withdraw your complaint'.

"That was where I crossed the line and I regret that happening."

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal's decision, dated July 13, said Mr Mawhinney had attempted to "force his own client to end the disciplinary complaint process" and his actions had "the potential to subvert the [disciplinary] process".

While it accepted Mr Mawhinney had acted "without stopping to think about what he was really doing", his behaviour fell "well short" of standards expected of a barrister and solicitor of the High Court.

"Mr Mawhinney's conduct also showed no respect for the disciplinary process."

The matter was first taken to the Standards Committee, before it was referred to the tribunal with a belief the requirements placed on the woman by Mr Mawhinney "may be a matter of misconduct".

"We agree with the submission of the Standards Committee that this is misconduct that goes to the heart of the disciplinary process.

"Not only was there pressure from a practitioner on his client to withdraw a complaint properly made, but the suggested withdrawal was predicated on a requirement to allow something the practitioner was obliged to do in any event - supply the files.

"For his misconduct, Mr Mawhinney is censured."

The tribunal said there had been a "considerable lapse of judgement" by Mr Mawhinney, as well as "unacceptable treatment" of a client by imposing demands he was not entitled to and causing confusion for the client over her rights.

Mr Mawhinney said requiring the woman to withdraw her complaint was "not the done thing and that was the breach".

"The Law Society is within their rights to do what they did.

"I do think it was very harsh, but at the same time, I'm not likely to do it again."

He had spoken to Queenstown Lakes Mayor Vanessa van Uden on Thursday, along with his fellow councillors, and the New Zealand Law Society property law committee, of which he is an executive member, to explain his situation.

"No-one had a problem," he said.

"I've had a huge number of emails, texts and phone calls ... from people who are all supportive.

"I'm feeling pretty down. You wake up in the morning and it's the first thing you think about.

"I regret doing it the way I did.

"The whole thing is disappointing to me, but I'm disappointed with myself as much as anything."

The tribunal ordered Mr Mawhinney be censured for his misconduct, pay a $5000 penalty to the New Zealand Law Society, provide a letter of apology to the complainant, pay $5219.50 in costs to the Standards Committee and reimburse the New Zealand Law Society $6100.

 

 

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