Justice Minister Andrew Little has warned the New Zealand Law Society he will intervene if he feels they can’t properly investigate widespread alleged inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment in the legal profession.
He’d take advice on appropriate action, but said it would be “a ministerial inquiry of some sort”.
“I’ve said, as the minister, I naturally have a stake in the law profession maintaining its standards. My concern is if there are enough complaints about the law society, there’s a question about whether they can credibly conduct an investigation.
“I would reserve my right to intervene … I needed to put them on notice.”
What started last month as a trickle of stories about sexual harassment in the legal profession has become a flood and the society — which by law is set up to regulate the profession — has come under fire for failing to ensure lawyers understood they had a legal obligation to report other lawyers to the society for misconduct.
The society last week announced measures to tackle under-reporting of harassment, including a working group, confidential helpline and online portal, and national survey.
Among the society’s most vocal critics was Olivia Wensley, who spoke publicly about her own experience of sexual harassment as a young lawyer and what needed to change.
She also asked Little to contact her. On Monday, he did.
Wensley told him she had received specific complaints and comments about the law society, which she planned to send to him, Little said.
He had also been contacted about “the same sort of issues”, but it was not specific enough for him to take action.
But that could change, something he had told the law society when they met for a regularly-scheduled quarterly meeting this week.
“Obviously I have a stake in their ability to ensure the profession not only does its job but is a safe one for practicioners to be in … given most graduates coming out of law schools now are women, it’s got to be a profession that is safe and suitable for women to practice in and that they’re not routinely subject to sexual harassment, or any other forms of improper conduct, in the workplace.”
It was a “real worry” that women had also not felt able to complain, Little said.
“It probably points to a problem the law society has, that it is a dominated by the law firms and senior practicioners, and not … staff solicitors and non-legal staff. And whether there’s got to be another independent process for people to go to when they consider their employment rights are being infringed upon, that’s a matter we’re going to have to look at.”
Little, who studied and practised law, said he had never heard stories of sexual harassment in the profession until last month.
“I’m absolutely stunned … if there’s one thing lawyers ought to understand from their studies, it’s about power … and yet some lawyers have been conducting themselves in a way that’s an abuse of their power towards their staff.”
Law society president Kathryn Beck said as well as prevention the working group would particularly focus on why complaints weren’t being made to the society, and how to best receive and deal with them.
Previously complaints had been treated by employers as employment or Human Rights’ Commission issues, and she believed this was why the society not contacted.
Beck also said the society worked to remain relevant with lawyers across their careers, including through young lawyers’ committees in local branches to support those new to the profession.
As for the minister’s warning, the society had “already put ourselves on notice”, Beck said.
“We’ve already taken a lot of steps, but there are more to take.”