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Judge Slashes Profligate and Incompetent Lawyers

Jock Anderson

Auckland defence lawyers in a major drugs trial have had their legal bills slashed amid High Court accusations one was profligate and another incompetent.

High Court Justice Rodney Hansen said aspects of a $217,000 bill submitted by crime barrister Chris Comeskey were “nothing short of profligate,” “grossly excessive” and “wasteful.”

And Crown solicitor David Johnstone said defence lawyer Peter Neutze - suspended from practice earlier this year for incompetence - should not get any fees because of the incompetent way he handled the trial.

Mr Comeskey sought $165,515 for himself and $52,457 for his junior counsel Jesse Soondram.

Last week trial judge Justice Hansen, who earlier heard claims for legal fees to be paid from more than $1 million of assets seized by police from the lawyers’ drug trafficking clients and subject to a court restraining order, slashed Mr Comeskey’s fee to$75,625 and Mr Soondram’s to $26,000.

In a detailed examination of defence lawyers’ bills Justice Hansen said a comparison with the time Crown counsel were engaged suggested either “inaccurate time recording” or “a high level of inefficiency” in Mr Comeskey and Mr Soondram’s bills.

Justice Hansen was effectively saying that Mr Comeskey was claiming for time in court when he wasn’t there.

Mr Comeskey claimed payment for time spent studying the Crown opening on the first day of the trial when, according to Justice Hansen, the Crown did not open until the second day and Mr Comeskey was not present for the whole day.

“A perusal of time records also lends supports to the inference that there was not an efficient use of counsel’s [Mr Comeskey] time. The time taken for preparation of some aspects of Ms Stevens defence was nothing short of profligate,” Justice Hansen said.

“Preparation of Mr Comeskey’s closing address for example (excluding 18 hours spent reading the notes of evidence) occupied 25 hours, including 6 hours for ‘rehearsing.’ By any standards, that is grossly excessive,” the judge said

“In my view the costs claimed by Ms Stevens’ counsel go to the point of being wasteful and cannot be countenanced.”

Justice Hansen, while agreeing that Mr Neutze was incompetent in his conduct of the trial, said it did not follow he should be denied payment and cut Mr Neutze’s legal bill from $81,875 to $50,000.

[In February 2006 the Auckland District Law Society  took action in the High Court against Mr Neutze, which resulted in him being suspended from practice for incompetence.

A full High Court of Justices John Hansen, Lester Chisholm and Warwick Gendall concluded Mr Neutze was incompetent in his handling of Mr Cavanagh’s defence in the drugs trial.

Justice Rodney Hansen had complained to the Auckland District Law Society about Mr Neutze’s persistent lateness being a disruptive influence on the trial.

Crown solicitor, Ross Burns, also criticized Mr Neutze at the February hearing for conducting irrelevant and unfocused cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, calling hearsay evidence and along with his junior being absent when the Crown opened its case. Costs of $42,847.40 were awarded against Mr Neutze.]

Following a jury trial in March-April 2005 Michael Cavanagh, Shannon Stevens and Deborah Henry received prison sentences for their involvement in a large-scale enterprise making and trafficking methamphetamine.

They were charged after a police undercover operation ended in August 2002.

Their unexplained income initially was $1,141,496.61.

Ms Henry was able to establish that $80,000 of her income was derived from legitimate sources.

But that still left more than a $1 million is assets seized by the police, including a house, motorcycles, bonus bonds, jewellery, cash and gold and silver bars.

The Solicitor-General, who wanted the seized property forfeited to the Crown, claimed the assets were “tainted property” under the Proceeds of Crime Act because they were used by Mr Cavanagh and Ms Stevens in their offending.

Mr Cavanagh and Ms Stevens took exception to this, claiming much of the seized property was acquired by legitimate means, and wanted their legal expenses paid from the seized property.

Ms Henry, who had a relatively minor role in the offending, was allowed to recover three items of her jewellery.

After lengthy argument Justice Hansen agreed that more than $1 million of seized assets be forfeited to the Crown.

He then turned his attentions on the lawyers’ bills.

Lawyers Peter Neutze and David Maclaurin, who appeared for Mr Cavanagh at his trial, and Peter Kaye, who appeared for him in subsequent proceedings, sought orders to have their fees paid from the seized assets.

Justice Hansen ordered payment of Mr Kaye’s “reasonable” account of $13,734.60.

Messrs Neutze and Maclaurin sought a total of $126,160 - the bulk of which - $81,875 - was sought by Mr Neutze.

Justice Hansen had no problem with Mr Maclaurin’s “reasonable” fee of $22,820 as well as disbursements totalling $21,465  for an investigator and accountant’s financial analysis.

And here’s where things got sticky again for Mr Neutze, up against the judge who initially complained about his incompetence to the Auckland District Law Society.

Messrs Neutze and Malaurin represented both Mr Cavanagh and Ms Stevens until shortly before the trial started in 2005.

In December 2004 Mr Cavanagh and Ms Stevens applied for the release of property subject to the restraining order on their seized assets to pay their lawyers and experts retained for trial preparation.

At the time Justice Rhys Harrison considered it would be reasonable to release $43,000 for legal fees.

Justice Harrison thought an extra $65,000 Mr Neutze wanted to pay a private investigator and forensic accountant was “excessive,” but eventually allowed a total of $85,000 to cover legal and experts’ expenses to the date of the trial.

Which was a point Crown solicitor Johnstone picked up on with Justice Rodney  Hansen telling the judge the $85,000 ordered to be paid by Justice Harrison was paid to Mr Neutze’s instructing solicitor.

According to Justice Hansen a memorandum from Mr Neutze of April 4, 2005 said legal costs incurred at January 21, 2005 were $85,000.

“But in terms of Harrison J’s judgment, that is not right,” said Justice Hansen.

“He [Justice Harrison] approved Mr Neutze’s account of $43,000. After payment of that sum and Mr Maclaurin’s account, there should be a balance of $37,517.50,” said the judge.

“Before I make final orders,” Justice Hansen said on December 7, “I ask counsel to file memoranda confirming that sum remains available and, it not, what has been disbursed and to whom.”

The case seems far from over.

Feedback on this story to jockanderson@xtra.co.nz