Self-help Law

This article is focused on New Zealand law and explains issues from a Common law perspective.

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How to complain about a lawyer

Lawyers must follow a strict code of ethics in their professional conduct. They must abide by this code or face a variety of punishments by disciplinary bodies.

Discuss the problem with your lawyer

The first step if you're feeling dissatisfied about your lawyer is to tell them about the problem. Often many problems stem from a lack of communication, and simply discussing the problem may resolve it. Discuss any concerns that you have as early as possible.

Who can I complain to if discussing the problem doesn't help?

If after raising the issue with your lawyer you are still dissatisfied with the way your case is being handled, the next step is to contact the District Law Society and let them know your grievance. If they think that your lawyer has acted unprofessionally, negligently or unethically, they can lay a charge against the lawyer with the District Disciplinary Tribunal or the NZ Law Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

What can these Disciplinary Tribunals do about my complaint?

If a Disciplinary Tribunal upholds your complaint, it may take a variety of disciplinary measures, including censuring or fining the lawyer, ordering him or her to perform work for you or pay you compensation, and restricting his or her practice. The NZ Tribunal can also strike lawyers off the roll of barristers and solicitors.

What if I'm not satisfied with the District Law Society's response?

If you are not happy with the District Law Society's response to your complaint you can write to the "Lay Observer" for your region. (Contact details for Lay Observers can be found on the NZ Law Society's website at www.nz-lawsoc.org.nz.)

The Lay Observer is a non-lawyer appointed by the government to deal with complaints such as this. The Lay Observer will investigate the matter and may recommend to the District Law Society that it take certain action.

Complaints about lawyers' bills

More commonly you might want to complain about your lawyer's bill. Again you should first ask your lawyer for an explanation.

If you are not satisfied with the lawyer's explanation, the next step is to contact your District Law Society, who will refer your complaint to a committee to review the bill. You must bring your complaint within six months of receiving the bill, although you and your lawyer can agree to a longer time.

This committee has the power to reduce the amount of the bill if it upholds your complaint. Usually you will not be charged for having the bill reviewed.

What I'm not satisfied with the committee's decision about the bill?

If you are unhappy with the committee's decision about your lawyer's bill, you can appeal to the Registrar of the High Court. If you are still not satisfied with the Registrar's decision, you can appeal to the High Court itself. The Registrar and the High Court may award costs to either party on an appeal.

Cautionary notes
  • Before complaining about a lawyer's bill, try to take into account factors such as photocopying and long-distance phone calls made in connection with your case.
  • As lawyers charge by the hour you should use your consultation time with your lawyer well. Only contact your lawyer if you have an issue that genuinely requires his or her time. Before meeting your lawyer, work out exactly what you want to say and the questions you want to ask, so that the time and your costs are minimised.

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