9 Mar 2023

Expert legal panel calls for complaints process overhaul

6:22 pm on 9 March 2023
18072016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Wellington High Court.

The expert legal panel made eight recommendations including that a new watchdog be established to regulate the industry. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

An expert legal panel is calling for a complete overhaul of how complaints about lawyers are handled, because the current legislation is not fit for purpose.

In a new report published on Thursday, the Independent Legal Review Panel is also recommending a new watchdog be set up to regulate the industry.

The findings are among eight recommendations made by the panel. It follows a review commissioned by the Law Society in 2021, more than two years after an outcry over sexual harassment cases and bullying within the profession.

The review has found current legislation, including the complaints process, is not serving lawyers or the public well.

In a statement, Law Society president Frazer Barton said while they were working within the current framework, the legislation was overly prescriptive and inefficient.

"Statutory change is needed if we are going to do more to protect consumers and the public," he said.

"The Review Panel found that dual functions of the Law Society also don't serve the interests of the public or the profession well, with the functions tending to be in conflict with each other.

"The report also recommends that a new Act places more emphasis on our Te Tiriti obligations, and highlights that we could be doing better at providing consumers with clear information about interacting with the legal profession."

The Law Society would work with the government to see how likely law changes were, Barton said, while also warning they would not happen quickly. Its board would make recommendations to the justice minister by the end of July.

"This review has outlined a number of areas where steps are needed for improvement," Barton said.

"There is new leadership established at the Law Society and we have every confidence we have the right team to drive the changes that are needed. We have also started work on setting our future strategy for how we operate as a membership body and will be continuing to work with the profession on what that will look like."

The eight recommendations made in the report are:

  • Establish a new independent regulator to regulate lawyers in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • Ensure the independence and effectiveness of the new regulator by institutional arrangements.
  • Incorporate Te Tiriti and regulatory objectives in the new Act and update the fundamental obligations of lawyers.
  • Reform the scope of regulation.
  • Enable the regulator to better protect consumers, support practitioners and assure competence.
  • Reform the system for handling complaints about lawyers.
  • Encourage diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
  • [LI The Law Society should continue as the national representative body. It should have a single governance layer, with a board comprising 8-10 members, including public members.

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