Comment
Alarm over Law Society complaint

A group pushing for justice for domestic violence victims sees the Law Society complaint against lawyer Catriona MacLennan as alarming. Deborah Mackenzie explains why

I read with alarm, interest and sympathy on Friday that the NZ Law Society was investigating a woman lawyer, academic and journalist - Catriona MacLennan - for speaking out in the media about judicial decision making in a domestic violence case.

My colleague, Ruth Herbert and I co-founded The Backbone Collective - an organisation set up to give women who had experienced violence and abuse a safe and anonymous way to say how the system responded to them when they reached out for help.  We have over 1200 women members and over 2,500 followers on Facebook.

When we launched a year ago we believed that if we gave the people who work in the system feedback from service users they would receive that information enthusiastically – ready to make change to ensure the system is effective as possible.

During 2017, the Backbone Collective surveyed hundreds of female domestic violence victims about their experiences in the Family Court. We found and publicly reported on a widespread culture of power, control, entitlement, intimidation, bullying and misogyny.

64 percent of victims were traumatised by the proceedings

34 percent were put down or traumatised in cross examination by the abuser’s lawyer

28 percent were verbally abused by a lawyer

19 percent were verbally abused by a judge

16 percent said the judge had threaten to take their children away from them

When we first publicly reported what women were telling us we were alarmed that both the judiciary and the New Zealand Law Society responded critically, in effect ‘shooting the messenger’.

In an almost unprecedented move the Principal Family Court Judge issued a public statement in response saying ‘ … it particularly concerns me that Family Court judges are being painted unfairly as uncaring and unprofessional and as putting people in harm’s way.’

The Law Society’s Family Law Section chair Michelle Duggan followed - publicly referring to Backbone’s work as ‘…a series of erroneous allegations about the integrity of the Family Court, its judges and lawyers”.

More recently after young women lawyers and law students spoke out about sexual abuse and harassment in the legal profession it was reported that the New Zealand Law Society had known about this behaviour for years and yet done nothing to address it.

Then the Criminal Bar Association reported that their survey had found behaviours in the court very similar to those experienced by domestic violence victims as reported by Backbone – a culture of harassment and bullying in the legal profession.

Now comes the news that the Law Society is taking disciplinary action against lawyer and journalist Catriona MacLennan for speaking out in the media about a judge for his lack of understanding about domestic violence, victim blaming, and minimizing of events.

Backbone Co Founders have reason to believe that we (and therefore our 1200 Backbone members who are all domestic violence victims) are being similarly vilified by those in the legal professions.  Over the past six to nine months a number of ‘insiders’ have told us that Backbone is being painted in a very bad light in an attempt to discredit the valuable service user feedback we have been sharing.  Similarly members have told us that they have been warned by their lawyers not to mention any Backbone connection as this will be ‘bad for them’. This is tantamount to suggesting that domestic violence victims’ voices do not matter and they will be punished for speaking out about how the system is failing them.

In an even darker twist we were recently informed by the Ministry of Justice that the NZ Law Society, Family Law Section had made an Official Information Act request in December 2017 asking for information on any OIA requests Backbone had made to the Ministry and copies of any responses issued.

Ministry of Justice wrote to us stating that the request was ‘an unusual situation.’  

So, what exactly is the NZ Law Society concerned Backbone will uncover in our investigations of the justice system? Who are they protecting and why are they so active in shutting down any reports or public comments that show the New Zealand courts are currently not operating in a way that keeps victims safe?

Seriously, in 2018 in a democratic country like New Zealand, do the interests of an extremely powerful and privileged group of professionals get to determine what the public know, what they don’t know and what they are asking for more information about?

Justice Minister Andrew Little met on Friday with the Law Society to talk with lawyers about the review of the 2014 reforms of the New Zealand Family Court.  We wonder if the Minister is aware that the Law Society were trying to use his Ministry to access private information they are not legally entitled to?  We doubt there will be much honest investigation of the issues in the Family Court in that forum.

The Law Society is acting just like an abuser. Shutting down any comments from women, minimising their experiences and punishing them for speaking up. #Timesup