Claim lawyer 'not regular' in paying his staff

By Edward Gay

Barry Hart is the subject of a disciplinary hearing over charges he asked for 'grossly excessive' legal fees in 2008.  Photo / APN
Barry Hart is the subject of a disciplinary hearing over charges he asked for 'grossly excessive' legal fees in 2008. Photo / APN

High profile defence lawyer Barry Hart was not good at paying his staff, says a young lawyer who worked in his office.

Mr Hart faces four charges brought by the Law Society's Standards Committee including charging "grossly excessive'' legal fees of $35,000 in late 2008.

He is also alleged to have refused to disclose a file to the Standards Committee and to have employed a private investigator without telling him that his bill would only be paid if legal aid was granted.

The hearing, before a five-member panel of the Lawyers and Conveyances Disciplinary Tribunal, is sitting at the Auckland District Court.

All witnesses have been given interim name suppression. One of those witnesses is a young lawyer who had been practicing as a lawyer for only two months when she was asked to write submissions for name suppression, and bail hearings in a serious assault case.

The woman said she could not recall anyone going over her work with her.

The Tribunal has previously heard that the clients were charged at Mr Hart's rate of $1000 an hour for the work.

But the woman said she did not keep working with Mr Hart for long.

She said she had heard from others in Mr Hart's office that he was "not regular'' in paying his staff.

"I had decided I wasn't going to work pro-bono If he wasn't going to pay me - I wasn't going to work.''

She said she stopped working for Mr Hart when payment for an invoice did not show up in her bank account.

After questioning from panel member Brent Stanaway, the woman said she was eventually paid but it was only after she left Mr Hart's chambers.

Yesterday, the Tribunal heard from Standards Committee lawyer Paul Collins who said a QC who had looked at Mr Hart's billing, said it was "difficult to see how he could justify the fees''.

Mr Hart is alleged to have charged fees at $1000 an hour despite much of the preparation work being done by the junior lawyer.

On one of the occasions the fees were charged for "waiting time in court''.

Mr Collins said Mr Hart had exploited the family who did not know about legal procedures.

"The compelling impression is that of a seriously irresponsible approach to fee charging in which invoices were created with substantial sums in rounded figures without any reference at all to the actual work being undertaken or to the interests of the client or his family.''

The tribunal also heard from the sister of Mr Hart's client. She said the family found out what the fees were for only once they complained to the Law Society.

"The money that we paid in accordance to the services we received and finding out that we were able to get legal aid ... We weren't advised that was a service for us.''

She said the family had taken out a loan to pay for the legal fees.

She was also asked about evidence that Mr Hart had filed with the court where it is alleged the woman told Mr Hart that she wanted the best and did not go with legal aid because the family didn't want a "crummy lawyer''.

The woman denied she ever said that. She said when Mr Hart asked her for cheques totalling $35,000, she thought "This is probably how it works.''

The Queens Counsel - who has name suppression told the Tribunal that it was essential for lawyers to brief their clients about the likely costs of their work and what they hoped to achieve.

He said it was important for the senior lawyer to be at the first appearance to show they were interested in the case and at complicated name suppression hearings but they did not need to be there for remands.

The lawyer was asked if clients should be billed at a lesser amount when junior lawyers appear for their case.

"I think that is a given.''

The Tribunal has heard that on one occasion Mr Hart billed his clients for $1000 an hour when much of his time was spent waiting around in court for the matter to be called.

He was asked if that was acceptable. He replied: "Unless the client was told that: I'm going to charge you $1000 an hour to sit and have coffee with you' ... The answer is no.''

"The fact that you have reached a certain age, doesn't entitle you to charge accordingly - regrettably,'' said the QC with more than 35 years experience.

He said the work done for Mr Hart's clients was "of good quality'' but was not overly complex.

He referred to Mr Hart's submissions for name suppression as "simply a template''.

"I can dictate those submissions in about five minutes.''

Mr Hart is not at the Tribunal. Yesterday his lawyer Nigel Cooke asked for an adjournment on the grounds that Mr Hart had chest pains, breathing difficulties and fatigue.

Tribunal chairwoman Judge Dale Clarkson said Mr Hart's illness was not so serious as to require hospitalisation.

"The tribunal holds grave concerns about Mr Hart's willingness to proceed in this hearing.''

She said Mr Hart's medical certificate contained "very bald assertions'' and the doctor who issued it had refused to appear before the tribunal to answer questions about it.

Judge Clarkson said the tribunal would use its ability as a quasi-inquisitorial panel, and would question the prosecution witnesses.

Mr Cooke said Mr Hart needed to defend himself.

"The consequences for the committee could well be very serious for Mr Hart and they are not matters he takes lightly.''

Mr Hart is well known in legal circles and has represented high profile criminals, such as Antonie Dixon who attacked two women with a samurai sword and shot a man dead in 2003.

Another high-profile client was Joseph Martin Reekers, who later admitted killing Marie Jamieson and dumping her body behind a west Auckland factory.

- APNZ

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