The Law Society has warned it is willing to take the rare move of naming and shaming badly-behaved lawyers.
New Zealand Law Society’s magazine Law Talk, out on Wednesday, is largely devoted to sexual harassment in the law profession following allegations that emerged of inappropriate sexual behaviour at law firm Russell McVeagh, including staff having sex with law students.
Society regulatory general manager Neil Mallon said naming perpetrators was regarded as a serious sanction and when doing so the impact on all parties – including the victim and lawyer – was taken into account.
Of the 1400 to 1500 complaints made to committees per year, only a handful resulted in the lawyers being named. In 2016, just four got named.
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Committees – made up of lawyers and non-lawyers – dealt with less-serious findings and the highest sanction that could be imposed was “unsatisfactory conduct”.
The most serious cases were referred on to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, which operated under the pretext that the process was open and hearings were held in public.
“Should standards committees receive complaints or reports concerning sexual harassment or unacceptable behaviour of that nature, it is fair to say they will look closely at the option of publishing the name or the facts of the matter or refer it to the tribunal to make it clear that this sort of behaviour, if proven, is unacceptable.”
Society acting executive director Mary Ollivier said, in Law Talk, that confidentiality about investigations was legally required but information on findings could be made public. This could include naming lawyers.
Publication typically happened when the committee believed making it public was in the public interest, it would enhance confidence in the legal profession, or if publication was necessary to protect the public or inform the legal profession, she said.
“A committee can also publish its decisions to educate the legal profession on the standards that are expected of lawyers,” she said.
The committee could remove victims’ names to protect their privacy.
Stuff this week revealed that legal researcher Zoe Lawton, who set up a blog for anonymous tips of sexual misconduct, said she had been threatened, as well as blacklisted by law companies and a government agency.
A State Services Commission (SSC) spokesman said Government agencies did not blacklist anyone for censorship reasons.
“Bloggers and other media commentators criticise public service departments every day and while we may not necessarily agree with their opinion it is their right to criticise.”
He did though confirm that SSC had not checked with its agencies about whether it had blacklisted Lawton or her blog. An SSC representative had spoken to Lawton, he said.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who has publicly backed Lawton’s blog, this week encouraged her to name and shame the agencies who had blocked her.
Lawton previously said she did not want to name them because she did not want to “stoop to their level”.
“Oh, I would name them,” Clark said. “This behaviour will only be dealt with when women call it out.”
Clark was “very supportive” of the #metoo movement. “Women en masse are calling out totally abhorrent behaviour.
“Women have been under pressure from men – sexual assault, violence, harassment pressure. And the intimidation has been around women thinking their careers have been held back if they don’t somehow agree. And actually, they probably have been held back.”
The fact Lawton had been blocked by some agencies was also intimidation, Clark said.
What started with Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood had now gone global, with particular attention here around the “grubby behaviour” in our law firms, she said.
It wasn’t enough for Russell McVeagh alone to do a review.
“I think the issue in law is sufficiently serious in New Zealand for the New Zealand Law Society to do a full review of the culture in the profession. This is clearly systemic, and it’s not good enough.”