18 Dec 2018

Legislative change needed for attitudes to change - former lawyer

2:20 pm on 18 December 2018

A former lawyer says government intervention is needed if attitudes towards sexual harassment in the legal profession are to change.

Follow the law. Professional lawyer sitting at the table and signing papers with justice statue standing on surface in forefront.

The Law Society is planning to introduce strict new rules lawyers around sexual harassment. Photo: 123RF

The Law Society is planning to introduce strict new rules for lawyers following a report from an independent working group that found a range of problems with the process for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Olivia Wensley left the profession after suffering years of inappropriate sexual behaviour from male colleagues.

She told Morning Report she believed it was possible for cultural change within the law profession if the rules were introduced, but she was unsure change will happen.

"I think there needs to be actual regulatory reform, I just don't think it's (the rule changes) enough.

"Remember the Law Society basically concealed what happened at Russell McVeagh for two years before it made media in February. I just don't think they're capable of being a watchdog by themselves, I think there needs to be additional oversight and the government needs to step in here."

However, Law Society president Kathryn Beck told Morning Report the society was bound by statutes within the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act which did not allow allegations to be made public.

"While we are the regulator, and we're very well set up to deal with consumer complaints which we police lawyers on every day, we weren't getting these sort of complaints.

"With any matters we get before us they have to go through a process, they are allegations and they do need to be worked through, but as I say, we are unable to talk about those.

"When things get to the point where decisions have been made and actions can be taken, then we have some flexibility around publication and if things make the way to the disciplinary tribunal that is a public process," Ms Beck said.

However, Ms Wensley believed overall the Law Society had dealt with behavioural issues within the profession appallingly.

"It's been such a long, hard road to get here.

"A survey showed 30 percent of women experience this behaviour but still not a single person has been held to account, not a single person has been fined or disbarred."

Ms Beck admitted no one has been fined or disbarred for sexual harassment since she became president in 2016, but is confident people will be held to account in the future.

"I'm satisfied that when we get things in the door we will deal with them, and if we can implement this report we will be able to get one, more in the door, and two, deal with them far more effectively."

Wellington Women Lawyers Association convener Steph Dyhrberg said the Law Society had been too clumsy when dealing with sexual harassment allegations in the past but believes the new rules will be a game-changer for the legal profession.

"Some law firms and other agencies will be concerned about compliance costs and whether this will make their job harder.

"But I think there have been a lot of assumptions 'oh everyone knows, this goes without saying, people don't behave this way', well the surveys that have been done, all the experiences that we've been hearing about over this past year and more, it absolutely does happen and it doesn't go without saying, it needs to be stated explicitly.

"It's about being human, we're all human, we all make mistakes, we just need to own this stuff... having a really clear set of rules makes it easy to point to them and say hey 'this is what you do and this is what you don't do'."

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