Law firms on notice following report into harassment, inappropriate behaviour

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 18 December 2018, 10:00AM
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. Photo / Getty Images

Law firms are on notice following a report into the profession's sexual harassment scandal, putting a sharp focus on inappropriate behaviour.

Dame Silvia Cartwright's report has recommended new rules for lawyers which specifically require high personal and professional standards.

Leading barrister Marie Dyhrberg QC, says when things do go awry, people need to be able to come forward safely, and have their complaint dealt with properly

She told Mike Yardley the issue needs to be addressed at its root, and the offending behaviour stopped before it happens.

"The focus must be on setting up process and mechanisms for education on what's acceptable and what's not...and really how can lawyers within the profession come forward and have their complaint dealt with in a proper way as befitting 2019 and onwards."

Dyhrberg said despite the changes being at least a year away, all law firms are currently "on notice".

"I am certainly aware that firms have already put in place education, monitoring and also advising safe ways for transparency in complaints, for safety, for confidentially. So the profession is already taking steps itself but to finally put a stamp on it, it could be up to a year but that's not bad timing." 

She said firms are also more aware of the drinking culture within law firms.

"An example is that there has been great changes within a huge number of law firms around alcohol and partying. That has got to be a very good step ahead because, of course, traditionally getting together and having a few drinks and exchanging some stories is very much a part of getting rid of stress but that is were a very dangerous situation occurs within firms and were a lot of the complaints arises." 

Law Society President Kathryn Beck told Tim Dower incidents of harassment are often not reported because the women feared it would negatively impact their work.

"There are a lot of reasons people don't speak up. We know that under-reporting of this type of behaviour is endemic everywhere in our society [but] I suppose the important thing is we have learned why they didn't speak up through this survey."

"They didn't feel safe, they were concerned about victimisation, they were concerned about their careers, they were concerned it wouldn't make enough of a difference for it to be worth the hassle, all sorts of reasons that this working group has looked at."

"So their recommendations are designed to try to create a process that will meet those concerns and allow people to come forward."

She said they are trying to change the culture of the workplaces so this kind of behaviour doesn't happen.

"It's not going to be easy. This area of work that has been done by the regulatory working group targets the regulatory areas, so that's the response when things have gone wrong, when we already have bad behaviour. What we are also looking to prevent this behaviour, create a culture within the legal profession that is healthy, safe, respectful and inclusive."

"We still know that no matter how hard we try some people will not come forward but the work of the regularity working group is going to be essential to making it really clear, to helping us make it really clear on what is completely unacceptable. That it is unprofessional conduct, not just criminal, not just bullying, not just harassment, it is unprofessional conduction and we will deal with it."

Beck said most people are proud to be part of the legal system and want to make sure its reputation isn't tarnished.

"What it means to be a professional and to conduct yourself with the utmost integrity, to be a fit and proper person. Now, none of this conduct, sexual violence, sexual harassment, bullying, decimalisation, none of that is conducting yourself with the utmost integrity."

"What we really need is people to understand that but more importantly, we need to find out when it's happening and we need to be able to deal with it and this report gives us a great blueprint for improving that."

The 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 behaviours.
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.

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.

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.

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