Disgraced lawyer drew client funds to pay staff

BELINDA FEEK
Last updated 05:00 28/07/2014

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A former Hamilton lawyer who was struck off after using $50,000 of client funds to pay his staff , was also the victim of a $820,000 fraud.

But whether anyone was charged over the fraud remains unclear as police have confirmed they have no record of it.

Christopher Giddens' was admitted to the bar in the High Court at Hamilton on March 19, 1997. He practised at Tristram Law, Lynden Court, Chartwell, but was working at premises on Victoria St, Hamilton, when the misconduct occurred in 2008.

On July 15, 2008 he gave an undertaking to a trust, of which he was a trustee, that he would hold the $50,000 to rectify an access problem at a Raglan property. Three days after the money was deposited into his account he then instructed staff to withdraw $10,000 payments into his trust account to pay wages between August 19, 2008, and October 14, 2008.

It was around that time that the firm's trust account was overdrawn by $820,000 after a staff member stole the money.

The tribunal put that down to "inadequate supervision" and that his practice was clearly in "disarray".

Giddens' move to Australia at the end of 2008 slowed down an investigation and prosecution.

However, he was removed from the register of lawyers on January 23, 2009.

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, in its decision released last week, ordered that Giddens be struck from the Roll of Barristers and Solicitors.

Giddens, who still lives in Australia, also failed to attend the July 14 hearing, saying there was a illness in the family.

But the hearing went ahead and in its decision, the tribunal revealed the apparent financial instability of the firm in email correspondence between Giddens and a staff member instructed to make the withdrawals.

One email read: "[withdraw $10,000] from the funds we are holding for banks and transfer it to the office account.

"I am fed up with waiting for this matter to be resolved so I can be paid. You should be able to get the bank to be able to put the wages through for today and tomorrow," Giddens wrote.

The tribunal wrote that the email was telling, both in regards to Giddens' state of mind and "that the practitioner's practice was in a fairly difficult state financially as the funds were required to pay wages".

The tribunal agreed with a submission from the Waikato Bay of Plenty Standards Committee that Giddens' actions were "plainly disgraceful and dishonourable".

He dismissed Giddens' unsubstantiated excuse that the payment was an "oversight".

In addition to striking him off the roll, the tribunal ordered him to pay the committee costs of $9685 and reimburse costs $1810 to law society for the hearing.

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New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore said lawyers must honour all undertakings, whether written or oral, that he or she gives to any person in the course of practise.

- Waikato Times

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