Calls for new rules to address sexual objectification of female lawyers

Author
Newstalk ZB, NZ Herald ,
Section
Audio,
Publish Date
Monday, 17 December 2018, 5:15p.m.
Dame Silvia Cartwright says she was shocked by the level of bullying in the law profession. (Photo / Getty)

LISTEN TO DAME SILVIA CARTWRIGHT TALK WITH LARRY WILLIAMS ABOVE 

Female lawyers have been subjected to "sexual objectification" for decades and new rules are needed to address unacceptable behaviour, a review has concluded.

The New Zealand Law Society is planning changes to reporting and is taking action on sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession following the comprehensive report.

A working group, chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, was set up to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces.

It considered if improvements could be made to enable better reporting to the Law Society of harassment in the legal profession.

Recommendations included new rules for lawyers which specifically require high personal and professional standards with specific reference to sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other unacceptable behaviour.

The report also called for specific prohibition on victimisation of people who report unacceptable behaviour in good faith, and a specialised process for dealing with complaints of unacceptable behaviour.

The working group found sex discrimination and sexual objectification of women lawyers was not new, and had taken place in the New Zealand legal profession since at least the 1950s. In a national survey in 1992, 38 per cent of women lawyers reported sexual harassment.

Dame Silvia told Larry Williams that the findings were shocking and unacceptable, and were somewhat unexpected. 

"I was shocked at the degree of sexual harassment and violence, particularly also at the proportions of discrimination on the basis of race." 

She says that bullying was another matter.

"Certainly, I think these problems have become a lot worse over the last decade or two." 

Dame Silvia says it is the shame of all the profession that they have not dealt with this. 

She says that they were given a narrow frame to examine the issue, based on how the Law Society could change their disciplinary process.

As a result of this review, Dame Silvia says that the Law Society plans to set up a task force. 

Judge and former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright chaired the regulatory working group. Photo / Dean Purcell

Judge and former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright chaired the regulatory working group. Photo / Dean Purcell

The working group was established in mid-April following widespread allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination within the legal profession, combined with a culture of silence and under-reporting of such misconduct.

Former staff members of top law firm Russell McVeagh had spoken out about sexually inappropriate behaviour by lawyers towards summer law clerks, and controversy also arose around the Otago University law camp following a series of allegations of nudity and jelly wrestling.

One of the summer clerks and a support person approached the Law Society about the experience at the Russell McVeagh summer clerk programme in 2015–2016, with an expectation they would act in some way, but they heard nothing.

No confidential reports were made by the law firm or its partners about the partner's and solicitor's behaviour either.

The partner and solicitor stopped working at Russell McVeagh, but they continued to work as lawyers, and the law firm even continued to work with the partner on "legacy" files.

Dame Silvia says she hopes other law firms will look at what happened to Russell McVeagh and see the reputation and financial damage the firm suffered from as a result of their culture. 

The Law Society's response to those allegations has been criticised and concerns have been raised about its ability to deal with sexual violence, harassment, bullying and discrimination by lawyers. The working group is part of the Law Society's process to tackle unacceptable behaviour within the legal profession.

Former lawyer Olivia Wensley, who has spoken out about sexual harassment in the legal profession, said the recommendations were a "good start".

"I am disappointed that despite the serious allegations at Russell McVeagh not one person has been censured or disbarred. It has been three years since they learned of the allegations.

"The Law Society is moving at a glacial speed and it is not good enough. Every day women are still being harassed."

Wensley said there needed to be government intervention and reform in the sector to ensure there was proper disciplinary action.

The Law Society's board has accepted the recommendations made in the report on the regulatory processes for lawyers where unacceptable workplace behaviour occurs.

"We wanted to know what was wrong with the current system and have received compelling independent answers including that conduct and reporting standards are unclear and must be addressed so to remove any confusion over what is expected of all lawyers," president Kathryn Beck said.

"The Law Society will now develop a programme to determine how they can be put into effect.

"Some of the recommendations are currently outside the mandate of the Law Society and require legislative change.

"The Law Society will work in consultation with the Government, the profession and other organisations to achieve the appropriate outcome."

New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck said they would be making changes based on the report's recommendations. Photo / File

New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck said they would be making changes based on the report's recommendations. Photo / File

Justice Minister Andrew Little had been advised of the report's recommendations and the Law Society would be seeking a meeting in the new year, Beck said.

The report has also been welcomed by the New Zealand Bar Association.

President Kate Davenport QC said alongside the proposals there needed to be a cultural change to ensure legal workplace environments were based on civility, kindness and respect.

"There needs to be an end to aggressive behaviour by both men and women in
the legal profession as part of this cultural change.

"A more robust reporting framework, along with cultural change, is critical for a profession in which people place so much trust.

"We need to remind ourselves that this trust is based on the reputation that we create. Unless we individually and collectively, through organisations such as the Law Society and the Bar Association, act to counter all forms of violence, harassment, discrimination and bullying, the damage to the reputation of the profession will be long-lasting."

The four other members of the working group included Jane Drumm, Philip Hamlin, Joy Liddicoat and Elisabeth McDonald.

Planned New Zealand Law Society changes:

  • New rules for lawyers which specifically require high personal and professional standards with specific reference to sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other unacceptable behaviour.
  • A specific prohibition on victimisation of people who report unacceptable behaviour in good faith.
  • The imposition of minimum obligations on legal workplaces or lawyers who are responsible for workplaces. This will include auditing and monitoring of compliance and a prevention on the use of non-disclosure agreements to contract out or conceal unacceptable behaviour.
  • A more flexible two-stage approach to confidentiality for complaints about sexual violence, bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and related conduct.
  • Creation of a specialised process for dealing with complaints of unacceptable behaviour.
  • Changes to the procedures of the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.
  • Investigation of mandatory training and education of lawyers to address culture problems in the legal profession.

 

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