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The New Zealand Law Profession’s Unceremonious ‘Third Anniversary’ Of Workplace Bullying & Harassment

John Bowie* It’s an anniversary that the New Zealand law profession would rather not have needed to talk about. But the end of February marked the third anniversary since the allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in the profession first arose and important questions still remain.

The news broke in February 2018 with stories about the misadventures of summer interns at Russell McVeagh.

And the investigations into the former partner at the centre of the claims remain “ongoing” according to media reports, which makes this case take on something akin to the exact cause of the COVID-19 outbreak.

And for “ongoing” investigations by the Law Society, the body replete with legal experts of every stripe, it seems like not all is well in the House of Law.

It was February 2018 when news broke that summer interns at the law firm were allegedly the victims of sexual misconduct in 2015 by a Russell McVeagh partner during nights of drinking.

The scandal saw Dame Margaret Bazley issue her report with 48 recommendations regarding Russell McVeagh’s staff management and related issues and they are close to implementing all of them, according to the firm.

To be fair to Russell McVeagh, if that’s not an offence in itself, the recommendations were significant and their implementation was not necessarily a cake walk for the firm.

And the issue they faced has also been one that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ saw many others avoid, although accusations abounded about the culture of many firms.

But the rambling investigation of the former Russell McVeagh partner seems eyebrow-raising, at best. It’s as if they have a case manager holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

The New Zealand Law Profession's Unceremonious 'Third Anniversary' Of Workplace Bullying & Harassment 7

Hitherto, the Law Society were not even able to confirm whether there was an investigation at all, which is itself extraordinary.

The prolonged delay in investigating the matter creates obstacles and concern for anyone seeking to complain about bad behaviour at the office. It dogged former Law Society president Kathryn Beck’s final months in office and continues to hang over the profession.

Law Society President Tiana Epati said in a commentary in the Law Society website that it was something that had been addressed by the profession “at every level” to address the required culture change.

Whether that has broken through what remains as largely an ‘old boys’ club and, to some extent today even an ‘old girls’ club of entrenched views and opinions about how workplace relations should be undertaken.

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These issues are certainly ‘systemic’ – the word most favoured in these circumstances – with the Police who have endured the most serious allegations of harassment and bullying in their workplace having to face the fact that, despite the ugly publicity arising from the Louise Nicholas case, remains very much in existence.

The New Zealand Law Profession's Unceremonious 'Third Anniversary' Of Workplace Bullying & Harassment 8
Tiana Epati

“I’ve spoken widely and publicly about the fact that these issues go beyond gender and have highlighted the need to talk about broader issues relating to intersectional experiences when discussing discrimination and harassment. All voices, on all forms of discrimination, need to be heard and responded to,” said Ms Epati in her comments.

Law Society Statement

Tiana Epati shared a statement made by NZLS Chief Executive Helen Morgan-Banda about the issue:

“Under the current regulatory system the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa would be breaking the law if we commented on any aspect of complaints made to us.

Law Society President Tiana Epati came into the Presidency in 2019 with a declared focus on improving diversity and inclusion. She has begun a process of system-level changes to deal with unacceptable behaviour as well speaking publicly on these issues many times since she took office.

At the highest level we announced an independent review of statutory framework for legal services, including the structure and function of the Law Society, in October 2019 which will examine all aspects of the current system, including the complaints process. The Terms of Reference for that review will be consulted on early this year.

We have also engaged with the profession and got agreement on significant changes to the current conduct rules applying to lawyers which we expect to come into force on 1 July 2021. These changes will clarify the threshold for reporting unacceptable conduct to the Law Society and create rules to protect anyone who makes a report or complaint.

The proposed changes will require those who manage and operate law practices to notify the Law Society about any warnings or dismissals for this conduct and to report to the Law Society annually that their law practice has the required policies and systems in place to prevent and protect against bullying, discrimination and harassment.”

The environment we operate in is complex. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (2006) sets out a co-regulatory system in which responsibility for regulatory functions is shared between independent entities (the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal and the Legal Complaints Review Officer), the government and the Law Society.

Only the Tribunal may make a finding of misconduct and suspend a lawyer or strike them from the Roll of Barristers and Solicitors.

You can read more about the co-regulatory system here and an earlier opinion piece written by the President and published in the media last year.

*John Bowie is LawFuel’s publisher. His LinkedIn page is here. Connect through Twitter.

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