Lawyer falsely accused senior govt manager of hacking into her clients Facebook account

A veteran lawyer falsely accused a senior ministry manager of using government resources to hack into her client’s social media and thwart legal aid funding in a heated Family Court case.

Lynette O’Boyle, who has practised for 30 years and worked in the public sector as a ministry lawyer for what is now Oranga Tamariki, has been found guilty of misconduct by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal over a letter in June 2018.

The letter, sent to three government departments and the Privacy Commissioner, came after O’Boyle’s client lost an interim child care case with her former partner, known as Mr C due to a permanent suppression order.

According to the tribunal’s decision released this week, Mr C had told Legal Aid “two material facts” which jeopardised the grant for O’Boyle’s client. The anonymous client complained to police, alleging Mr C might have hacked her Facebook Messenger account to obtain the information he provided to Legal Aid and the court.

O’Boyle then asked Mr C to provide certain electronic communications over the alleged hacking and also sent a letter to his employer, the chief executive of a government department – the name of which is also suppressed.

The letter suggested Mr C and his new partner, Ms P, used departmental devices to hack the social media account of O’Boyle’s client. The Whangārei lawyer also copied the original letter to two other government departments, each with a covering letter suggesting the addressee may be Ms P’s employer – one of which was.

O’Boyle’s allegations went even further as she falsely claimed one of the identified IP addresses “also accessed my computer”.

And she copied the original letter to the public office entrusted to protect the personal information of Kiwis.

“I am forwarding a copy of this letter to the Privacy Commissioner because my client believes that as a matter of Public Interest employees of the Public Service who use Government devices should use those devices for appropriate use only,” the letter read.

O’Boyle also warned Mr C’s employer of alleged criminal activity being conducted on its devices.

“The Ministry is on notice if the Ministry confirms or information comes to hand via other methods [Mr C] has used Ministry equipment to access [the client’s] information then has used that information to forward to Legal Aid [XXXX] the matter will be referred to the Police.”

However, both Mr C and Ms P’s employers replied and stated none of the IP addresses provided by O’Boyle related to it and neither had improperly used work devices.

O’Boyle’s allegations against Mr C included the claim he “has lied to the court and possibly to you his employer” about “his criminal offending and other matters”.

However, although Mr C had faced four charges in 2009, he had no criminal convictions because he was discharged without conviction and was granted permanent name suppression.

In the course of responding to the Standards Committee investigation, O’Boyle reiterated her version of the story about Mr C’s alleged criminality. But when the Standards Committee obtained the notes of evidence from the court it corroborated Mr C’s veracity about what he told the court, contradicting O’Boyle.

At the tribunal’s hearing in late March, O’Boyle also gave evidence about her client’s instructions and said she felt great pressure to write a letter to Mr C’s employer.

She said her client came into her office “yelling, ranting” and “frothing”.

O’Boyle claimed the client said: “He was charged, you know, he lied to his employer, I’m sick of it, I want you to deal with this.

“He’s taken stuff off my Facebook.”

A couple of days later, O’Boyle added, the client returned and “was adamant she wanted blood”.

O’Boyle described the Family Court file as having “caused me huge anxiety” and was a “high conflict” case.

“This is a Legal Aid file and they’re exhausting,” O’Boyle said in her evidence.

“I can tell you there was no malice involved. It was a situation where I just wanted to deal with that fire and move. Frankly, if I can be so blunt, when you’re dealing with legal aid clients you don’t care enough about the client so much.”

In its decision, however, the tribunal showed little sympathy to O’Boyle.

It said neither it nor O’Boyle has any direct evidence that the client’s Facebook account was hacked.

“Even if the client’s account had been improperly accessed via four IP addresses situated in central Wellington, that is a weak basis for the strong barrage aimed at three Government Departments and escalated by her report [via a copy of the original letter] to the Privacy Commissioner,” it said.

The tribunal added O’Boyle also deliberately and falsely claimed her computer had been accessed to build the appearance she had “very strong evidence” of the link she was seeking.

“We find that the overstatements and falsehood contained in the demand for information reflect on Ms O’Boyle’s professionalism.”

The idea to send the letter, the tribunal said, was formed in a heated atmosphere fuelled by anger and embarrassment.

“We do not accept that Ms O’Boyle merely sent the offensive parts of the letter simply to be rid of her client’s demands. We find that Ms O’Boyle was a willing participant in the potentially harmful correspondence.”

O’Boyle “lost grip on her proper professional role” and failed to give her client the guidance and judgment the public can expect from a reasonably competent lawyer, the tribunal stated.

“This is particularly important in matters such as family law where clients can sometimes
become over-heated and imprudent. Instead of remaining within her appropriate professional role, at arm’s length from her client, Ms O’Boyle acted in concert with the
client.”

It said O’Boyle knew Mr C had been discharged without conviction for his 2009 charges but “glossed the information to produce a wrong and damaging inference against Mr C”.

“We find that Ms O’Boyle, from her experience, knew that her letter, in the form it was sent, was going to cause trouble for Mr C at his employment. Recognising the gravity of this finding, we find that she either wilfully intended to cause him and Ms P such harm or that she was reckless about that possible foreseeable outcome.”

The tribunal found O’Boyle’s “scattergun approach” was reckless and her cumulative conduct would reasonably be regarded by lawyers of good standing as “disgraceful”.

“What distinguishes this case is the intent to harm the opposing self-represented party in an unrelated sphere. The lie, the wilful or reckless extent of allegations and inferences, the scattergun of toxic material, the reckless failure to check material or question her own sources before going on such a strong attack support this. These features reduce the confidence of the public in the profession generally if not brought to account.”

The tribunal directed a penalty hearing for O’Boyle to be held at a later date.

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