Prominent Maori lawyer Donna Hall has been cleared of a professional disciplinary charge over her involvement in a multi-million dollar land deal.
Ms Hall said a decision of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal made public today dismissing the charge against her "was always expected".
She was charged over her involvement in a deal in late 2006 and 2007. Ms Hall said the importance of the transaction was that traditional land had been brought back into Maori ownership.
Multiple ownership of Maori land trusts placed special demands on the lawyers who advised them, and needed specialist knowledge, she said.
"These special features must not, however, deter Maori from preserving and increasing their holdings of traditional lands."
Ms Hall is a leading lawyer in the field of Waitangi Tribunal claims. She is married to former High Court judge Sir Edward Durie, who is co-chairman of the New Zealand Maori Council.
A Wellington lawyers' standards committee alleged Ms Hall had been negligent or incompetent to such a degree that it reflected on her fitness to practise or tended to bring the profession into disrepute.
It arose out of Ms Hall's involvement in raising a $5 million deposit to buy back Ngati Tuwharetoa ancestral land from Landcorp near Taupo. The standards committee alleged Ms Hall "wore three hats" and acted for three trusts - seller, buyer, and lender - in the deal from November 2006 to July 2007, and did not properly handle the potential conflict of interest.
Lawyers are not allowed to act for more than one party in a transaction without each party agreeing, being advised of the conflict and told that they should take independent legal advice. A lawyer has to stop acting if it would be likely to disadvantage any of their clients in the transaction.
In late 2006 Landcorp Farming Ltd was selling a large block of land near Taupo. Some Maori leaders hoped the land would be returned to Maori through the Treaty of Waitangi claim process but that was not guaranteed so it was decided to buy back the ancestral land for various Maori interests.
Ms Hall acted for the trust that negotiated the deal with Landcorp on behalf of a group of interested parties, and later advised one of the ultimate buyers. Some trustees were on both trusts.
The purchasing trust initially had another lawyer but rejected his advice not to put money into the purchase and four months later asked Ms Hall to act for it in putting into effect its decisions. Before March 2007 Ms Hall had been dealing with the purchasing trust as a promoter representing the trust dealing directly with Landcorp, the disciplinary tribunal found.
The Tribunal said that, in any event, as the trust dealing with Landcorp was acquiring the land for the benefit of the purchasing trust and others, there was a "mutality" of interest that made it unlikely that acting for both trusts would disadvantage either.
The tribunal said there was no direct evidence that Ms Hall had acted for a third trust that lent money to the purchasing trust that bought the land. The evidence did not support the allegation that Ms Hall had acted for both trusts out of personal financial interest.
The tribunal ended its decision saying that the investigation and charging of Ms Hall had been justified on their face but she was not shown to have breached the rules in the way the charge alleged. It added though that her conduct in terms of her relationship with other lawyers might be capable of criticism.
The lawyer for the standards committee that brought the charge, Gary Turkington, said it would not comment on the outcome. It has 20 working days to consider whether to appeal.
The tribunal has fixed the hearing cost for the Crown at $43,750. In the normal course the New Zealand Law Society has to repay the money.
The decision on other costs for the case will be decided later.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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