Barry Hart charged $20k too much
Auckland lawyer Barry Hart charges more for an hour of his time than many people earn in a week, but that's not unusual for a barrister, an expert witness has told Hart's misconduct hearing today.
Hart faces three charges of misconduct and one charge of conduct unbecoming of a barrister, including that he overcharged fees, obstructed the Auckland District Law Society's investigations and did not pay the full amount to a private investigator he had hired.
He is not in court to defend himself against the allegations because he is suffering from "chest pains, breathing difficulties and fatigue", and a doctor's medical certificate seeking an adjournment has not been accepted by the tribunal.
In testimony to the Auckland Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, a senior lawyer said a case for which Hart charged $35,000 would have been done easily by another lawyer for $15,000.
However the expert witness, who cannot be named, said Hart was a "specialist criminal lawyer of considerable experience" and could charge as much as the market allowed, as long as the terms of such payments were communicated to the clients.
He said people such as the family involved in the criminal case in question were "disadvantaged and inexperienced" and their judgment could be "severely impaired".
"It's essential you tell them what the costs are likely to be, what the process is likely to be from start to finish... That really is not different from most commercial clients who also want to know what they're paying you for," the witness told the tribunal.
"It's worth remembering that [hourly rate] is more than most people earn in a week, and this bill is more than many earn in a year."
He said it appeared Hart had billed the client at his top rate for time spent waiting at the court house when he should not have.
The witness said if Hart had done all the work on the case a fee of $24,000 would have been more appropriate, but if a mix of senior and junior lawyers were involved the cost would have been around $16,000.
"A number of people would happily do this for $15,000, and do it well."
Earlier today a junior lawyer testified to doing much of the work on the case in question.
At the time she had two months worth of experience and had spent 31 hours working the case with no recollection of Hart having critiqued or corrected her work.
She said she did not know how much was being billed for her time, and said that as a more experienced barrister she would now do the same amount of work in much less time.
Asked why she attended court hearings with the client's family she agreed she had formed a bond with the family - more so than Hart.
"The family felt comfortable with me being there because I was the person they dealt with, not so much Barry, so I was a support for them."
Eventually she ceased working for Hart because she was not being paid promptly.
"There were issues surrounding finances and I wasn't happy with the way things were being dealt with.
"I'd heard from others in the office that he isn't regular with payment for his staff ... If he wasn't going to [pay], I wasn't going to work."
All witnesses in the case have interim name suppression. The hearing continues.