Problem with your lawyer?

At least once a month (and sometimes more than once a week), I am approached by someone who has a problem with their lawyer – usually in a different part of the country from where I am.

If you have a problem with your lawyer, the first port of call should be the lawyer. Email them, or make an appointment to see them (and take a support person with you).

If necessary, quote from the following summary of lawyers’ client-care obligations, provided in the introduction to the Rules of Conduct and Client Care for Lawyers:

Client care and service information

Whatever legal services your lawyer is providing, he or she must—

  • act competently, in a timely way, and in accordance with instructions received and arrangements made:
  • protect and promote your interests and act for you free from compromising influences or loyalties:
  • discuss with you your objectives and how they should best be achieved:
  • provide you with information about the work to be done, who will do it and the way the services will be provided:
  • charge you a fee that is fair and reasonable and let you know how and when you will be billed:
  • give you clear information and advice:
  • protect your privacy and ensure appropriate confidentiality:
  • treat you fairly, respectfully, and without discrimination:
  • keep you informed about the work being done and advise you when it is completed:
  • let you know how to make a complaint and deal with any complaint promptly and fairly.

The obligations lawyers owe to clients are described in the Rules of conduct and client care for lawyers (the rules). Those obligations are subject to other overriding duties, including duties to the courts and to the justice system.

If you have any questions, please visit www.lawsociety.org.nz or call 0800 261 801.

That summary is not comprehensive or exhaustive. It is, however, a starting point.

Most problems arise from miscommunication or misunderstandings and can be rectified.

What seems to the lawyer to be ‘clear information and advice’ is often not so clear to the client. (Example: Does ‘file’ documents mean put them in the filing cabinet? When used by a lawyer, ‘file documents’ usually means ‘take or send documents to the court’.  Who would know?) Lawyers use jargon all the time and without thinking about it.

The lawyer may also assume the client understands and remembers oral information, especially if the lawyer does not easily have time or resources to provide the information and advice in writing.

Many clients are traumatised because of the issues that have led them to need a lawyer in the first place. When traumatised, it is difficult, even impossible, to process information and remember things accurately. Lawyers are not formally trained to recognise or respond to trauma.  Clients may also not recognise their own problems with perception at such times. A little patience on both sides goes a long way.

Every lawyer or law firm is required to have a ‘complaints process’ in place. Information about this will be in the ‘terms of engagement’ or ‘client-care information’ provided to clients at the start of the work.  Often this information is also on the firm’s website, under ‘terms of engagement’.

See also:  Kiwilaw’s feedback form to use – ‘Give feedback to lawyers – it’s easier than you think.’

If the problem is more serious, or if you have already tried unsuccessfully to resolve it by communicating with the law firm, the law society’s Lawyers Complaints Service can help.

Kiwilaw can provide analysis and assistance before you make a formal complaint, and perhaps also after the lawyer has responded to your complaint.  We do have to charge you for this, as legal aid is not available to cover this work.  (If the lawyer has indeed let you down, you may be able to recover from the lawyer all or some of what we charge, although this is not guaranteed.)

In most cases the Lawyers Complaints Service can provide adequate help to make a complaint.