Bullying, Harassment, and Discrimination: The New Zealand Legal Profession’s Uphill Battle for Change

Bullying, Harassment, and Discrimination: The New Zealand Legal Profession's Uphill Battle for Change

The New Zealand legal profession still faces a series of challenges, particularly regarding workplace bullying, despite some positive trends in a recent survey, reported by the Law Society

While the survey results indicate a decline in sexual harassment within law practices over the last five years, there remains a significant reluctance to report such incidents.

Katie Rusbatch, the Chief Executive of the Law Society, acknowledges the importance of these survey findings,

The survey reveals a decrease in the prevalence of sexual harassment among lawyers, whether defined by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act or a behavioral definition.

About 48 percent of respondents in the survey said there was employment discrimination relating to their gender, 29 percent their age and 23 percent said it was because of their ethnicity, particularly for Asian and Pacifica lawyers.

The 2023 Workplace Environment Survey was undertaken to follow up the 2018 survey and establish any behavioural changes in the New Zealand legal workplace environment since then.

The Pacific Lawyers’ Association is concerned that Pacific women are the most discriminated group in the legal profession, the association said in response to the Law Society report.

Decrease in Sexual Harassment 

One positive trend noted is that lawyers who have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years are less likely to consider it a common occurrence in their workplace, a shift from 23 percent in 2018 to 12 percent in 2023.

This change is more prominent among medium-large law firms. Additionally, the proportion of lawyers who have witnessed sexual harassment as bystanders has decreased by 9 percentage points, down to 19 percent.

Katie Rusbatch remains optimistic about these improvements, stating, “While the only acceptable number for incidents of sexual harassment is zero, I’m optimistic that the drop in incidents of sexual harassment provides further signs that the profession is changing for the better. It shows that recent high-profile cases, changes to professional standards rules, and clear messaging about zero tolerance of sexual harassment are making a difference.”

Reluctance to seek support or report unacceptable behavior due to fear of consequences or distrust in the process continues to be a significant barrier that needs to be addressed. The Law Society aims to break down these barriers and encourages lawyers to speak up about such issues with their employers and the Law Society.

The survey also explored other key areas, including workplace well-being, bullying, and employment discrimination.

While a significant portion of the legal community reports job satisfaction, job-related stress and concerns about its management have increased. Specific areas of law, such as criminal and family law, face immense workload pressure.

Notably, work-life balance is lowest among Pacific people working in the legal field.

Bullying remains a common issue within the legal community, with half of the respondents reporting experiencing it in a legal setting at some point. Although there has been a slight decrease in bullying according to the Rules definition, it remains a focus area for the profession.

Employment discrimination affects 11 percent of the legal community, with gender, age, and ethnicity being dominant factors. This issue can damage career prospects and harm mental well-being, underlining the importance of creating an inclusive environment that reflects the community being served.

The Law Society recognizes that there is still much work to be done to create a safer, more inclusive, and respectful environment within the legal profession.

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