A verbal stoush between Duncan Cotterill and Russell McVeagh over disclosure of a sexual harassment issue with a lawyer hired by the former from the latter firm has developed into one of the nasty side effects of the recent sexual harassment issue hitting Russell McVeagh.
The sexual harassment and assault issue has created a mounting storm, with the stories reaching international media like The Guardian and the Global Legal Post.
Russell McVeagh claimed, in a story reported in Newsroom.co.nz, that it was transparent over the issue of alleged sexual assault involving the solicitor who was subsequently hired by Duncan Cotterill.
However, Duncan Cotterill beg to differ, saying they did not have a ‘second meeting’ with Russell
McVeagh and that the full extent of the alleged assault was not made clear. The solicitor resigned after Duncan Cotterill started making their own enquiries following the receipt of new information.
Russell McVeagh’s statement to the news site was –
“We categorically confirm that we were fully open with the firm who came to us for a reference. We had prior consent from the male employee to fully disclose the incident that occurred at a Wellington bar while fully protecting the privacy of the woman involved in the incident. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, a verbal reference was deemed to be the most appropriate approach . .
“The discussion in this second meeting expanded on the incident in further detail, for example, there were questions asked in relation to an allegation of sexual assault, the nature of the police involvement and what further action was being taken, all of which Russell McVeagh answered fully and frankly.
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“After those two conversations, the Wellington firm hired the man concerned.
“We reiterate and stand by our position as articulated on Nine to Noon and in our statement of 14 February 2018. We are committed to protecting the privacy and identity of the young women involved as they have requested.”
The developing issue has involved comments from Justice Minister Andrew Little who told NBR that he is also unhappy with the way in which a sexual harassment complaint involving the Human Right Commission was handled, but who is also worried about the culture in some law firms that needs to be addressed.
The Law Society has stepped forward to indicate how it handles complaints given criticism of its own role in the matter. The issue took eight months to reach the Law Society with Law Society president Kathryn Beck telling Newsroom that it first became aware in September 2016 of the Russell McVeagh summer clerk allegations of sexual assaults which occurred in December 2015 and January 2016.
“There was a meeting in confidence in early September between [the Society’s executive director] and one of the [young women] and her representative. That is the first time that any of this appears to get on the horizon.”
Various womens’ legal groups and others have criticised Russell McVeagh and ‘law firm culture’ generally as permissive and lacking the appropriate safeguards for vulnerable women such as summer clerks.
According to Canterbury University lawyer and ethics lecturer Kathryn Dalziel, Russell McVeagh is seriously at fault in not reporting the matter to the Law Society.
“If the Law Society first heard about this from one of the complainants eight to nine months after the events, then this suggests the Russell McVeagh partners who knew about it failed to report the matter to the Society at the earliest opportunity which is their duty under our professional rules of conduct and client care,” she said.
“If that is the case, then in my view that is not good enough and serious questions need to be asked of those partners at Russell McVeagh.”