Lawyers must respect your rights. This includes charging you a fair amount, protecting and promoting your interests, keeping you informed and treating you with respect.

If you aren't happy with your lawyer's service — including how they behave — follow these steps. You may not need to do both:

  1. Try to sort it out yourself with your lawyer — they have to deal with complaints about their services promptly and fairly.
  2. Complain about your lawyer to the Law Society

1. Sorting it out yourself

Many problems can be resolved by contacting your lawyer. Before you do:

  • Know your rights.
  • Know how to complain.

Your rights

Your lawyer or conveyancer must:

  • do their job well, on time, and follow your instructions
  • put your needs first
  • talk to you about what you want to achieve
  • tell you what they will do and how this will happen
  • charge you a fair amount, and tell you how and when they will charge you
  • give you clear information and advice
  • protect your privacy
  • treat you with respect and without discrimination
  • keep you up to date on what work is being done and when it is finished
  • tell you how to make a complaint about them, and deal with any complaints quickly and fairly.

Example — Unfair fees

Julie hires a family lawyer to help her in her divorce. She isn't given any information beforehand about how much it will cost. She is sent a bill she thinks is too high, with no break down of hours or tasks. She asks the lawyer to explain the charges. The lawyer sends a detailed invoice with hourly amounts and what was done. Once Julie can see where the cost comes from, she's happy to pay.

How to complain

Every lawyer must have a complaints process. If they haven't made this clear to you, ask them what it is.

Before you complain:

  • Gather proof, eg emails and letters, dates and details of conversations, invoices.
  • Write a timeline, eg take notes with dates and what happened to make your situation clear.
  • Decide your ideal outcome, eg a refund or reduction in your bill, an apology, financial compensation for any losses.

When you complain:

  • Put it in writing — either by email or letter, including the date. Keep a copy yourself in case you need evidence of your complaint.
  • Use the word 'complaint' — this will make sure your issue is put through the right process, instead of being taken as feedback.
  • Stick to the facts — explain the problem in detail and provide any evidence you have.
  • Take time out, if needed — if the conversation gets heated, or you need time to consider their response, arrange a time to call, email or message back. Explain you need to time out to digest the conversation.

Making a complaint

Example — Not getting approval

Tom hired a lawyer to help with an issue he was having at work. His lawyer sent a letter to Tom's manager without checking with Tom before he sent it. Tom complained to his lawyer. His lawyer said they'd agreed to send the letter, when in fact they hadn't. Tom took his complaint to the Law Society who ordered the lawyer to pay a fine and apologise to Tom.

2. Complain to the Law Society

If you can't agree on a solution, you can make a complaint to the NZ Law Society. They can also give you information if you are concerned about your rights.

Lawyers complaints service(external link) — NZ Law Society

Issues that NZ Law Society can hear complaints on include:

  • Lawyer/conveyancer behaviour, eg treating you unfairly, or a conflict of interest.
  • Bad service, eg delays, not doing what they said they would, not responding to calls or emails, giving you incomplete or wrong information.
  • Fees, but only if your bill is for more than $2,000 for lawyers and billed under two years ago.
  • Failing to follow your orders, eg going against what you told them you wanted.

You can talk to the law society whether you paid for the lawyer yourself or through legal aid.

What you can expect

After you fill in a complaint form, a Standards Committee will look at your case.

The Committee will recommend a dispute resolution process. Dispute resolution options include:

  • Mediation/negotiation — this avoids a hearing and can be a faster, simpler process. You can choose to have mediation/negotiation by filling in a concerns forms.

Raise a concern form(external link) — NZ Law Society

  • Formal inquiry — if the committee doesn't think mediation or negotiation is an option, your case might be settled by the Standards Committee after an inquiry. This could involve a hearing.

Orders they can make

If the Standards Committee thinks the lawyer has done something wrong, it can:

  • decide what the lawyer must do to put it right, ie apologise, pay compensation (up to $25,000), reduce or refund your legal fees, pay a fine, fix any mistakes at their own cost.
  • send the case to the NZ Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal if it is very serious.

How your complaint is processed(external link) — NZ Law Society

Example — Confidentiality breach

Janet and her husband Bill have separate wills with their lawyer. Bill talks to the lawyer without Janet there and asks to be sent their wills. He is sent Janet's will without her permission. It has something in it he did not know about. Janet is very upset he was shown a private and confidential legal document without her consent.

She complains to the lawyer and to the Law Society. The complaint goes to the standards committee who agrees Janet should have been able to expect confidentiality for such a private document. They order the lawyer to pay Janet compensation, write an apology and pay the costs of the investigation.

More help

Get support at any point from:

  • Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB): A free, independent service, run by volunteers. CAB can advise you on your consumer rights and obligations, in person, by phone, or online.
  • Community Law Centre: Free one-on-one legal advice to people with limited finances. The organisation has 24 community law centres throughout the country. You can find legal information and other resources on its website.

Find a CAB(external link)  — Citizens Advice Bureau

Our law centres(external link) — Community Law Centres