Lawyer Chris Comeskey suspended

BY IAN STEWARD
Last updated 14:31 15/07/2010
Chris Comeskey
LAWRENCE SMITH

HIGH PROFILE: Chris Comeskey appears in court, awaiting the outcome of his disciplinary hearing. He has defended methamphetamine user Millie Elder; tagger-killer Bruce Emery; and wife-killer Nai Yin Xue.

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Maverick lawyer Chris Comeskey has survived an attempt to have him struck off for misconduct.

Comeskey, who had pleaded guilty to three charges of misconduct, was instead suspended for nine months.

The Lawyers and Conveyances Disciplinary Tribunal stopped short of striking him off after he gave undertakings to take on a mentor, not use junior staff, and rescind his Legal Services Agency accreditation - meaning he would no longer do legal aid work.

The Law Society had asked to revoke Comeskey's practicing certificate after he admitted submitting false invoices to legal aid, failing to act appropriately for a client, and misleading the Court of Appeal.

Comeskey apologised to the tribunal, the judiciary and other lawyers, but not before he was prompted to do so by presiding Judge Dale Clarkson.

He reserved his final apology for his six children and his family, saying he was unable to answer his seven-year-old son when he said to him: "Dad, you never told us you were a crook."

John Billington, QC, for the New Zealand Law Society, told the tribunal that, as well as billing out junior staff at his senior counsel rate, Comeskey had also billed for preparation of a call-over memorandum. There was no evidence the memorandum had ever been produced, he said.

"(Legal Aid) is not a scheme to provide lawyers with a certain level of income. It is a scheme for the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of lawyers,'' he said.

Quoting from a previous judgement, Billington said: "Except in the most exceptional circumstances, dishonest lawyers are struck off by this tribunal.''

Earlier today, Comeskey blamed an "inefficient office system'' for the over-billing charges.

His lawyer Russel Fairbrother told the hearing that Comeskey had never prepared one of his own invoices and "the business side did not mirror the advocacy side'' of his practice.

Fairbrother said Comeskey had not acted dishonestly and provided affidavits in support of his client from former police officers, clients and other lawyers.

Comeskey made his name as a high-profile defence counsel to criminals such as methamphetamine user Millie Elder; tagger-killer Bruce Emery; and wife-killer Nai Yin Xue - the father of abandoned girl Qian Xun Xue, known as "Pumpkin".

He originally faced nine charges relating to thousands of dollars of incorrect billing to the Legal Services Agency, misleading the Court of Appeal and making disparaging comments about judges and the courts.

The charges relating to disparaging comments were withdrawn.

Evidence was presented showing Comeskey had invoiced the Legal Services Agency for $3157, all billed at the senior rate of $154 an hour, despite the client saying she only saw Comeskey once and was otherwise dealt with by junior counsel who were not authorised by the agency.

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