Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Law Society: Strike Barry Hart off

Defence lawyer Greg King (left) and his client Barry Hart leaving the Auckland District Court building, where the disciplinary tribunal hearing was held.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Defence lawyer Greg King (left) and his client Barry Hart leaving the Auckland District Court building, where the disciplinary tribunal hearing was held. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Barrister Barry Hart is fighting to save his career after losing a "lifetime of earnings" from a failed $26 million property development.

The Law Society has asked a tribunal to strike off the veteran lawyer - described as the "ultimate sanction" by both the prosecution and defence.

The 71-year-old will wait at least another week before learning his punishment following a Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal hearing which found him guilty of professional misconduct when he "grossly overcharged" clients for his services.

Paul Collins, on behalf of the Law Society, said the 46-year legal veteran had shown a pattern of professional failings and a lack of integrity.

"The case for striking off is compelling. It is the ultimate sanction but there is a continuing theme of disdain for his professional responsibilities," said Mr Collins.

"He has shown a lack of insight into the gravity of what has occurred."

A letter from Warren Simpson, a friend of Mr Hart since they studied law together in the 1960s, was read to the tribunal by Mr Collins.

Mr Hart took on a heavy workload as a defence lawyer and was "under pressure from every conceivable side", wrote Mr Simpson. This led to the collapse of his property empire west of Auckland.

He had lost a "lifetime of earnings", said Mr Simpson. As a result, Mr Hart's $26 million property portfolio had been sold in a mortgagee sale and debt collectors had seized luxury cars such as a Ferrari.

Mr Collins said the impression gained from the letter was that Mr Hart was a "world-weary, battle-worn lawyer who let his standards slip" because he was distracted.

Any punishment other than striking off would be "inadequate".

Greg King, on behalf of Mr Hart, agreed that removal as a lawyer was the "ultimate sanction" but argued that a lesser penalty would suffice.

"Striking off would be the ultimate fall from grace for a man who has served as a lawyer for 46 years."

Mr Hart was an "extremely hardworking and committed advocate, who always did his very best for his clients," said Mr King.

He submitted that Mr Hart was a "victim of his own success", whose popularity as a defence lawyer meant he failed to come to grips with the business side of his law practice.

"The public nature of his fall from grace means that despite everything he has done, he will always be seen as the lawyer who overcharged. He will always have that stain."

Mr Hart agreed to repay $20,000 to a client the tribunal found he "grossly overcharged", and the Law Society sought prosecution costs of more than0 $116,000. The tribunal costs were around $42,000.

Judge Dale Clarkson, chairwoman of the tribunal, asked for further submissions to be filed from both parties within seven days.

PROFESSIONAL MISCONDUCT

* Barry Hart was last month found guilty of three charges of professional misconduct.

* He charged a client's family $1000 an hour despite much of the preparation work being done by a junior lawyer who had been practising for only two months. On one occasion, the fees were charged for "waiting time in court" and totalled $35,000 - $20,000 more than what an Queen's Counsel said they should have been.

* Another charge of failing to inform a private investigator that a $4682 bill would be paid only if he got legal aid was also proven.

* A third charge centred on Hart's refusal to disclose a file to the Law Society's standards committee after a complaint over costs. Despite several extensions for time, Hart continued to delay handing the file over for more than a year. The tribunal found Hart had prevented the standards committee investigating the complaint.

- NZ Herald

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