High-profile Queenstown lawyer cops it for ‘pressuring’ ex-client

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The New Zealand Law Society has pinged a high-profile Queenstown lawyer $16,000 for inappropriately pressuring an ex-client to drop a complaint. 

The troubles of Preston Russell Law partner Russell Mawhinney – who’s also a Queenstown Lakes District councillor – began when his former client complained about unsuccessfully seeking the return of her legal files since 2008. 

On that matter, the Law Society’s Otago standards committee found Mawhinney guilty of unsatisfactory conduct in 2011, ordering him to pay fines and costs of $2000. 

Mawhinney was then charged with the far more serious offence of misconduct – for telling the ex-client in the lead-up to the unsatisfactory conduct hearing that she’d only get her files back if she dropped her complaint against him. The tribunal findings quote from two damning emails Mawhinney sent his ex-client in June 2011.

Mawhinney’s first email said he’d provide the client files on the basis that “… you immediately withdraw [the complaint] and advise [the Law Society] immediately”. 

His second email a few days later enclosed a draft letter Mawhinney was going to send to the ex-client with her files, the final paragraph stating: “Please also confirm that you have immediately withdrawn [the complaint] and advised [the Law Society].” 

Mawhinney pleaded guilty to misconduct – defined as “disgraceful or dishonourable” behaviour – at a NZ Lawyers & Conveyancers Tribunal hearing last month and was ordered to pay a further $16,319. 

As well as the money, Mawhinney suffered a severe censure from the tribunal: “His behaviour fell well short of standards expected of a barrister and solicitor of the High Court. 

“It was a matter that had the potential to subvert the [Law Society] disciplinary process and it also breaches the trust members of the public should be able to rely on when dealing with a lawyer,” the tribunal says. 

The tribunal also says Mawhinney tried “to derail the disciplinary process” by “applying undue and inappropriate pressure” on his ex-client over her complaint. 

Mawhinney crossed the line by telling his ex-client that she would only get her files back if she dropped her complaint, the tribunal found. 

While his misconduct involved “serious issues”, the tribunal also found “a background of difficulty” between Mawhinney and his ex-client over non-payment of legal bills. 

“That may have clouded Mr Mawhinney’s judgment,” the tribunal said. 

His actions “were thoughtless and careless” rather than deliberate – otherwise he’d have been temporarily struck off, the tribunal said. 

While the offending is “at the lower end”, the tribunal said “we consider a penalty of a relatively significant amount is required given the serious nature of the misconduct”. 

Mawhinney, 52, was contrite yet forthright when contacted by Mountain Scene this week. 

“I’m disappointed with the whole thing,” he says. 

“I’m disappointed with the decision, I’m disappointed with myself for getting myself in that position – and I just have to accept it and move on. 

“The person who laid the complaint has shafted a lot of people in this town so my judgment was probably clouded a bit by that,” Mawhinney adds. 

The ex-client, who’s left town, still owes him thousands of dollars, he says. 

Mountain Scene asked Mawhinney whether he’d told the mayor and fellow councillors about the Law Society convictions. 

“No, I haven’t,” he says. 

Mawhinney was admitted to the Bar in 1986 and has practised in Queenstown for 10 years. He’s also on the national 
executive of the Law Society’s property law committee.