17 Dec 2018

Lawyers face strict new rules after harassment scandals

6:12 pm on 17 December 2018

The Law Society is bringing in new rules for lawyers in the aftermath of the sexual assault and bullying allegations that have rocked the legal profession.

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Photo: 123rf

Earlier this year, the society announced it was setting up an independent working group to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

The group was chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright and its 130 page report has found a range of problems with the current regime.

The Law Society said it's planning a number of changes following the review. They are:

  • 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.

New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck said the working group prepared a comprehensive report.

"Dame Silvia and the other four members have provided valuable information and insights into the issues involved.

"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," she said.

Ms Beck said some of the recommendations are complex and far-reaching, but they will assist in making the legal community a safe place for all.

"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.

"We have already advised the Minister, Andrew Little, of the report's recommendations and will seek a meeting in the New Year to hear his views and to discuss how we can implement the required rules changes," Ms Beck said.

"As indicated in the working group's report, and as with all legislative change, it will be important to take care to ensure there are no unintended consequences. A consultative and collaborative approach is needed, and this is essential to ensure we achieve our objective of healthy, safe, respectful and inclusive legal workplaces."

Dame Silvia said the current process was not adequate for sexual assault and bullying issues.

"While entirely appropriate for consumer-based concerns such as 'My laywer charged me too much or didn't do a very good job' or matters of that nature [the processes] are quite inappropriate for more sensitive issues such as sexual harassment, violence, bullying and discrimination."

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