The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal has made its liability and penalty decisions in the case of Auckland lawyer Murray Tingey who faced charges relating to his time as a partner at Bell Gully 15 years ago and in a decision where the Law Society said it was “disappointed” in the decision, which avoided suspension for Tingey.
The Tribunal censured and fined Tingey $15,000.
Tingey faced two charges, with Charge 1 related to misconduct under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, while Charge 2 pertained to misconduct under the Law Practitioners Act 1982.
The allegations were tied to his conduct towards a colleague, Ms. X, with whom he had an intermittent personal relationship. He admitted Charge 1 but denied Charge 2, which was subsequently dismissed by the Tribunal.
Charge 1 encompassed several incidents post-2009, with Mr. Tingey admitting the charge but disputing some of the specific details. The Tribunal assessed these incidents and factual determinations. Charge 2 related to a single incident from 2008, which Tingey denied, but it did not meet the threshold for professional misconduct.
The case raised the issue of the extent to which a lawyer’s conduct in the context of a personal relationship should be considered a disciplinary matter. The Tribunal acknowledged that certain aspects of Tingey’s conduct warranted disciplinary action, but it emphasized the need to consider the emotional context of such relationships and not impose overly moralizing or infantilizing principles that interfere with adults’ right to make relationship decisions.
The relationship between Tingey and Ms. X, which began while they were both married, continued for nearly five years with secret meetings and communications, hidden due to disapproval by their firm, which had a strong family culture.
The Tribunal noted that the age and status of the parties did not create a significant power imbalance. Importantly, the relationship had ended over 12 years prior to the case, and some events in the charges dated back 15 years. Ms. X came forward with her complaint as she felt a duty to speak up, and the Tribunal did not criticize the delay but recognized its impact on evidence and memory.
Charge 1 included three specific incidents. In the first, Tingey behaved in a demanding and controlling manner, blocking Ms. X’s exit from the office and intruding into her vehicle.
Intoxication and Break-in
The second incident was the most serious, involving an intoxicated Tingey breaking into Ms. X’s apartment, grabbing her phone, and following her to her bedroom. Police were called, and counseling was arranged for both parties. The third aspect of Charge 1 involved workplace harassment in 2011, with Tingey overbearing and unpleasant towards Ms. X. This behavior was the primary reason for her leaving the firm.
In Charge 2, the allegation stemmed from a 2008 incident during a weekend conference. Tingey, intoxicated, knocked on Ms. X’s cabin, which she refused to enter. The Tribunal found his conduct boorish and annoying but not aggressive, and it did not meet the threshold for professional misconduct.
In the penalty decision, the Tribunal faced complexities due to the lengthy intimate relationship and the passage of time since the conduct.
The November 2009 incident was the most serious, characterized as an episode of domestic violence that left Ms. X frightened and distressed. She described long-lasting feelings of insecurity, heightened anxiety, and damaged self-esteem in her victim impact statement.
The other incidents were less serious but still inappropriate for colleagues or former partners in either a workplace or home setting. The Tribunal acknowledged there wasn’t a pattern of misconduct but rather a pattern of inexcusable and reprehensible conduct towards Ms. X.
It was considered an aggravating feature that the conduct spanned almost two years, but Tingey’s status as a senior professional was not seen as an aggravating factor. In fact, it was characterized as the absence of a mitigating feature.
The Tribunal credited Tingey for accepting the most serious conduct, offering apologies to Ms. X in 2013 before any complaint, and seeking professional help. His loss of 75 percent of ongoing work due to publicity was recognized, as was the erroneous damage caused by inaccurate reporting.
The Tribunal also considered references from colleagues and clients that highlighted his talent and contributions to the public good.
The Standards Committee advocated for suspension as a penalty, emphasizing the seriousness of the conduct and the need for deterrence.
Tingey argued that he had already faced significant consequences, including the loss of partnership, legal costs, vilification, and the erosion of personal relationships. The Tribunal recognized the unusual circumstances of the case, including the long delay of 12-14 years since the conduct occurred. It also noted that Tingey did not have a supervisory role, was in a stable relationship, and did not consume alcohol excessively.
In its penalty decision, the Tribunal took into account these unique aspects of the case and concluded that public confidence would not be undermined by a less intrusive penalty than suspension.
It imposed a fine of $15,000 and censured Tingey. He was also ordered to pay a portion of the Standards Committee’s and the Tribunal’s costs, and several suppression orders were issued as outlined in the decision.