9 Feb 2017

Lawyer embezzled thousands from clients

1:04 pm on 9 February 2017

The swift fall from grace of a former Tauranga lawyer who embezzled thousands of dollars from his clients has been revealed.


Tauranga lawyer Christopher Twigley was struck off in December. Photo: 123rf

In December, the Law Society revealed Christopher Twigley had been struck off after admitting six reckless conduct charges brought by a standards committee.

The full decision, made by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, has now been published.

It shows Twigley, who now lives in Australia and is bankrupt, could not afford to travel to the Wellington hearing.

In January 2014, Twigley was loaned $150,000 by a client - a conflict of interest.

He was unable to pay the man back and some of his belongings were repossessed.

The tribunal heard how, in November 2014, as an administrator of another client's late mother's estate, he transferred $10,000 to his office account.

This came after the man had loaned Twigley $4000, then refused to loan him $50,000 more.

Twigley used some of the $10,000 to pay his staff.

When the man raised his concern, he was invoiced $10,000, an amount the tribunal said was "too coincidental to be plausible".

It did not find any evidence to support the fee.

Twigley still owes the man about $11,000.

In another case, he took $3000 from the estate of his client's deceased son.

Again, no invoice was given or permission sought.

He misappropriated $3500 from another client's late mother's estate.

When the client realised what had happened and asked for an invoice, one was provided - for work the standards committee said was not worth more than $600.

Twigley described his actions as "desperate" and said he was "fire-fighting".

In early 2015 he wound up his practice.

He did not tell his clients, nor help them find alternative representation.

'The lawyer seems to have been reckless in how he acted'

During the tribunal's hearing, it heard Twigley had five historic unsatisfactory conduct charges to his name, dating from 2011, including for charging clients grossly excessive fees.

"This was a serious breach of Mr Twigley's duties of fidelity and independence and his duty to protect his client's interests," said the standard committee's lawyer, Dale La Hood.

"The solicitor's trust account has long been regarded as sacrosanct and dealing with its funds for personal use is considered to be at the highest level of professional misconduct and culpability."

The tribunal struck Twigley off and ordered him to pay about $20,000 in costs.

"The protection of lawyers' clients is paramount and in this case the lawyer seems to have been reckless in how he acted in a number of matters," said the Law Society's president, Kathryn Beck.

"A very high standard of care and conduct is expected from all lawyers and the focus must always be on the interests of their clients."