For immediate release:October 18, 2004
For further information: contact: David Johnson, OAE
Office of Attorney Ethics Makes Public Hearing List Available Online;
Annual Report on Attorney Discipline System Released
Information on attorneys who are charged with misconduct is now available at njcourtsonline.com, today announced David Johnson, Director of the New Jersey Judiciary's Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE). The announcement coincided with the release of the 2003 report on the attorney discipline system.
The Web site contains the statewide "public hearing list." Updated each month, the page lists all of the attorneys against whom formal charges are pending. Most of these cases will have public hearings.
"This list of public hearings has been published monthly for several years, but posting it online has made it more accessible to citizens and clients who may be seeking this information," said Mr. Johnson.
While the report offers detailed information on disciplinary action taken against attorneys who have been found in violation of the rules governing attorney conduct, the information added to the OAE Web page on the Judiciary Web site allows citizens to view information on attorneys before a public hearing, in which the evidence is presented both for and against the attorney, is held.
The OAE is charged with investigating allegations of attorney misconduct and with overseeing the state's 17 district committees, which also investigate claims against attorneys. In addition, the OAE oversees the district fee arbitration committees, the random audit program and the annual attorney registration process. It is funded through fees paid by New Jersey's approximately 80,000 lawyers. The OAE annual report includes detailed information and statistics on public discipline of attorneys, attorney/client fee disputes, random audits and annual attorney registration.
OAE Report Highlights
The OAE annual report for calendar year 2003 shows a 15.6 percent increase in the number of grievances docketed by the attorney disciplinary system, from 1,472 filings in 2002 to 1,703 filings in 2003. For the same period, 1,615 matters were resolved. At year's end there were 1,402 cases pending. The report notes a 31.6 percent increase in filings since 1999.
During the year, 193 disciplinary sanctions were imposed on New Jersey lawyers. Of these, 162 were final disciplinary sanctions, while another 31 consisted of emergent temporary suspensions. The final sanctions included
12 disbarments by consent;
61 term suspensions;
43 reprimands; and
New Jersey is one of only 10 states with a statewide, mandatory fee arbitration program. Through the program, a client who has a dispute with an attorney over fees may bring the matter to one of the state's 17 district fee arbitration committees, which are composed of volunteer attorneys and members of the public. Under the program, the attorney has the burden of proving that the fee charged was reasonable.
The number of fee disputes submitted to New Jersey's fee arbitration program was 1,157. In addition, the district committees carried a total of 595 matters over from 2002. In all, 1,243 matters were resolved by these committees.
Of the cases resolved during the year, 91 percent were either arbitrated by the fee committee or settled by the parties voluntarily after arbitration was begun. The committees conducted a total of 811 hearings involving $13,310,375 in total attorney's fees charged. In 33.4 percent of these cases (271 hearings), they upheld the attorney's fees in full. In the remaining 66.6 percent of the fee cases (540 hearings), they reduced the fees by a total of $2, 619,188, which represents 29 percent of the total billings subject to reduction.
All private law firms in New Jersey are required to maintain trust and business accounts in their private practices and are subject to random audit reviews for accounting compliance. One of only seven random auditing programs in the country, New Jersey's is the largest, with an experienced staff of five full-time auditors. The program's results show that the overwhelming majority (98.8 percent) of New Jersey law firms account for clients' funds without incident. While the program identifies minor record keeping deficiencies, it also educates lawyers about the causes of these deficiencies, as well as how they may be corrected.
Five attorneys received final discipline by Order of the Supreme Court because of unethical financial practices detected through random audits. Several other attorneys were temporarily suspended from practice pending full investigation of serious financial abnormalities.