Lawyer censured and fine over sexual harassment

Author
Newstalk ZB, NZ Herald,
Section
Audio,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 22 January 2019, 8:38p.m.
Kathryn Beck says this is a positive move that shows these incidents will be taken seriously. (Photo / Getty)

LISTEN TO KATHRYN BECK TALK WITH MIKE YARDLEY ABOVE

A former partner at a New Zealand law firm has been censured and fined by the Law Society following an investigation into his sexual harassment of two employees.

The partner, whose name is redacted from the Lawyers Standards Committee decision which considered his case, was removed from the firm's partnership and later resigned following his behaviour at two social events.

The firm - which is also redacted in the decision - reported his conduct to the New Zealand Law Society leading to the standards committee's investigation.

The findings were released today, with the committee ruling the lawyer's actions amounted to unsatisfactory conduct. It ordered he be censured, fined $12,500 and required to pay costs of $2500.

Society President Kathryn Beck told Mike Yardley that this is a very good sign.

She says that it shows the Law Society will act on complaints.

"There are difficulties under the regulations we work under. They are drafted to protect consumers, not our workplaces, but that's going to change.

"Even so, we're managed to put some things in place that have enabled us to act in these circumstances and others."

Beck says that this person had never been before the Law Society in a disciplinary process previously.

She says that repeat offenders risk being struck off.

The first incident occurred at the firm's offices during its Friday night drinks, the committee's decision reads.

The drunk partner touched the leg a female solicitor near him and told her: "You are very attractive."

Upset, the female lawyer left but wanted the firm's partners to be made aware of the incident while not wishing to lay a formal complaint.

Senior lawyers at the firm, including the female solicitor's supervising partner, an employment partner, and the managing partner, then talked with the man about his behaviour.

He didn't deny his actions but said he had no recollection of them, understood by the partners to mean he had suffered an alcohol-induced blackout, the decision reads.

The offending partner was rebuked by the firm and warned against any further inappropriate behaviour. He was also told to stay away from staff drinks in the near future.

But the partner's harassment reoccurred - this time at the firm's end-of-year party.

On this occasion, the man directed his unwanted attention towards a female employee of the firm, who was not a lawyer.

He approached the woman on the dance floor and pinched her bottom, leaving a bruise, the decision reads.

The partner was told to stop but he pinched her bottom again later in the evening.

After the bus ride back from the function venue, he also propositioned the employee, asking her, "Are you coming with me?"

The partner, the decision reads, was "visibly intoxicated" during the events, slurring his speech and walking unsteadily.

During the course of the same evening he also grabbed the woman's wrist and forcibly squeezed her hand against his groin.

He told her: "This is for you."

She immediately withdrew her hand, while another male colleague intervened to remove the drunk partner, the decision reads.

The second incident was reported by the female employee on the following Monday before the rogue partner met with the firm's other partners as part of an internal disciplinary process.

Again, he did not deny the events but said he had no memory of them.

The partner was immediately suspended and the next day removed from the partnership.

He later resigned, which took effect four months later, although he did not return to the office following his suspension, the committee's decision reads.

The firm also reported the partner's conduct to the Law Society.

After considering the case, however, the committee decided a charge of misconduct before the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal was not justified.

It said there were a number of mitigating factors, including that the lawyer had taken full responsibility for his actions, shown significant contrition and remorse, and had taken steps to ensure there was no repeat of the behaviour.

The two harassed employees also indicated they were satisfied with the way the firm dealt with the matter.

The partner said he was ashamed, remorseful, and does not seek to excuse or minimise his conduct, the decision reads.

The ex-partner, who had no prior disciplinary history with the Law Society, has also taken "time out" from the law fraternity.

In responding to the committee, he explained he had experienced an "intense personal crisis" at around this time, which had a profound impact on his wellbeing and mental health.

Neil Mallon, the Law Society's acting regulatory general manager, said the Law Society takes its regulatory role "very seriously" and will investigate all complaints. But, he added, there was also the question of whether the current regulatory system is fit for purpose when it comes to these types of investigations.

"This was the focus of the report by the working group chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright which the Law Society Board accepted and is now actively working through," he said.

The working group was established last April following widespread allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination within the legal profession.

Its report, released last month, found female lawyers have been subjected to "sexual objectification" for decades.

In deciding on an appropriate penalty for the partner, Mallon said, the standards committee took into account his acceptance of full responsibility, the actions he has since taken to address the difficulties in his personal life and his behaviour, the views of the two employees involved and the firm's actions.

"It imposed a fine which is over 80 per cent of the maximum fine a standards committee can impose and it ordered him to be censured," Mallon said.

A censure remains on a lawyer's disciplinary record throughout their career and is a serious sanction, he added.

Last year, a confidential online survey of New Zealand lawyers by the Law Society found one in five had been sexually harassed in the workplace.

The same results also showed about one in three female lawyers has been sexually harassed at some time during their career.

Marcus Lush Nights

Marcus Lush Nights

8p.m. - 11:59p.m.