An independent panel has suggested that the New Zealand Law Society should be stripped of its statutory powers so far as regulating lawyers’ conduct is concerned.
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The report said the panel was a case of “lawyers looking after lawyers.”
The recent report was commissioned by the Law Society, and reported that the organization lacked transparency, was biased and failed to meet the needs of both the consumers and the lawyers it represented and regulated.
The review found that the Law Society’s primary function was to represent lawyers in NZ and also hold them accountable for breaking the rules of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.
The panel advised the creation of a new regulator, separate from the Law Society, that would handle investigations into lawyer misconduct and lay charges against them when appropriate.
The review was conducted following allegations made against a former Russell McVeagh partner, James Gardner-Hopkins. The issues first arose in 2018 involving summer interns at the firm’s Wellington office.
The independent Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal’s reserved penalty decision imposing a two-year suspension and costs of over $100,000 on James Gardner-Hopkins for findings of misconduct in January 2022.
The Law Society commissioned a survey of the legal profession, which found that one-third of all female lawyers interviewed had been sexually harassed during their working life, and more than half of all lawyers had experienced bullying in the workplace.
The Law Society then implemented new rules to define discrimination, bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment, and reporting unacceptable conduct became clearer.
Those who run law firms are now required to submit a report each year about how they are managing those issues appropriately.
The recent report had harsh words for how the Law Society is currently run.
It stated that the Law Society’s regulatory work tends to be reactive and is not transparent.
The current complaints system is slow, adversarial, produces inconsistent outcomes, is perceived as biased towards lawyers, and is not consumer-centered or restorative.
The panel recommended that a new regulator, sitting alongside the Law Society, should be a board of eight members with an equal split between lawyer and public members. The large elected council and board were described as “unwieldy and outdated”.