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A senior barrister has been convicted for escaping Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown last year, which he bragged about on social media as he slipped through ‘checkpoint Charlie’.
The getaway came just days after another lawyer and his partner, the son of a district court judge, fled to Wanaka and became the target of public anger.
By his own admission, lawyer Umar Kuddus said he felt ‘trapped at home’ as the government used strict measures to try to curb the spread of the delta variant from August last year .
Due to the 28-year-old’s brazen use of social media, his excursion south of the Alert Level 4 border has not gone unnoticed.
Kuddus, who acts largely in civil and commercial litigation, emailed the Hamilton District Court on Sept. 15 about a financial assessment hearing he was scheduled to attend two days later. In the same message, he also noted that he was unable to travel from Auckland to the hearing and requested that it be held by telephone.
Despite the court’s approval, Kuddus headed for the southern border with the goal of reaching the relative freedom of Waikato Level 2 at 8 a.m. on September 17.
He did not have a work exemption, nor did Kuddus have a personal exemption to cross the border, according to court documents given to the Herald.
During her journey, Kuddus has posted several times on Facebook and Instagram.
In a selfie from the driver’s seat, seen by the Herald, he said: “I promise I’m not flying in Wanaka.”
The reference to the Central Otago resort came just six days after police were made aware of Auckland lawyer Hannah Rawnsley and equestrian William Willis fleeing the super city for a holiday home.
Willis was later found guilty and ordered to pay a $750 fine, while Rawnsley’s request for release without conviction was granted and she was ordered to pay $500 to charity.
In another social media post from his excursion, Kuddus uploaded a photo of himself heading into police border control at Mercer and wrote: ‘Auckland’s version of Checkpoint Charlie.’
Checkpoint Charlie was the most infamous crossing point of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.
Kuddus stopped at a petrol station and the courthouse in Hamilton before returning to Auckland. The financial assessment hearing was held over the phone while he was driving, but the lawyer had left a trail of evidence.
Due to his brazen use of social media, another attorney at law firm Meredith Connell brought Kuddus’ day trip to the attention of the police, according to the Herald.
After being charged with breaching a Covid-19 order, Kuddus first represented himself in the court case, including when he pleaded guilty in April.
However, after an illness excuse at 1 a.m. asking for a postponement of his original sentencing date last month, police have launched another investigation.
Police visited Kuddus’ employer, law firm Patel Nand Legal, and confirmed that Kuddus had legitimately tested positive for Covid-19.
After that, Kuddus boss and company director Radhe Nand acted on his behalf and asked for a half-hearted discharge.
Last week, during the rescheduled sentencing hearing in the Pukekohe District Court, Kuddus also considered, but ultimately decided against, overturning his guilty plea and defending the charge.
Nand said that if found guilty, Kuddus could lose his practicing certificate and his job with the company.
Judge John McDonald retorted: “Of course you will lose your job if you lose your practicing certificate.”
But the judge, who conducted the hearing via video link from Whangārei, said it was “highly unlikely” that proceedings would be brought by the NZ Law Society to remove Kuddus from the lists of barristers and barristers.
Kuddus was also admitted as a lawyer to the Supreme Court of New South Wales in September 2020.
In addition to convicting Kuddus, Judge McDonald fined the attorney $900 and ordered him to pay $130 in court costs.
Nand had argued that Kuddus was unaware that his trip south would violate the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act.
He said Kuddus tested negative for Covid-19 before leaving Auckland, “had absolutely no symptoms” and that his trip “had caused no harm to anyone”.
Nand also said Kuddus was unaware of the Chief Justice’s memos to all legal officers in August and September of last year.
Helen Winkelmann’s statements made it clear that no lawyers were required or expected to cross the Auckland border to attend court hearings. It was also clarified that if a lawyer saw the need to cross the border, this should be reported to the president of the court beforehand.
“If he knew of the existence [of the memos] he wouldn’t have travelled,” Nand said.
Judge McDonald said he had doubts about Kuddus’ claim that he was unaware of the Chief Justice’s messages.
Nand further maintained that Kuddus’ ride “was under no circumstances” and that police at the checkpoint received a letter from the court regarding Hamilton’s hearing.
But Judge McDonald said border police would have agreed to Kuddus telling the truth.
Prosecutor Todd Simmonds opposed the request for release without conviction and said, “Mr. Kuddus, as a practicing lawyer, should have known better.”
“There was no compelling reason or need for Mr. Kuddus to travel to Hamilton that day for what can only be described as a minor [court] appearance.”
Simmonds said it appeared Kuddus “felt somewhat locked in by the ongoing lockdown” and asked for a reprieve.
In an affidavit from Kuddus, he said “I’ve been stuck at home for so long” and felt unable to do what he loved – to plead.
Judge McDonald, however, told him that other members of the community “missed far more important events”.
People who obeyed Covid-19 rules, he said, could not attend funerals and tangi, weddings, visit family who were seriously ill or see newborn babies.
“I’m sure we all, to one degree or another, felt we were being trapped,” Judge McDonald said.
“Fortunately, the vast majority of New Zealanders have followed the rules.”
Judge McDonald said as Kuddus expressed remorse, “my opinion is that you are sorry to have been taken”.
New Zealand’s largest city spent 107 days in lockdown last year from August 17, which former Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins admitted on TVNZ last month may have lasted too long.
“The people of Auckland have paid a heavy price for our continued suppression of Delta while we increase our vaccination rates,” he told Q+A.