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Women lawyers blast Law Society inquiry

A women's law group says an inquiry into lawyer Catriona MacLennan by the Law Society over comments she made critical of a judge will damage the profession and stifle debate about important issues of domestic violence.

It wants the inquiry abandoned and an apology made to MacLennan.

MacLennan's comments related to Judge John  Brandts-Giesen who in a Queenstown case discharged a man without conviction for violently assaulting his wife and made comments about the victims that the Auckland Women Lawyers Association believe normalised and minimised domestic violence.

A family lawyer for two decades, she told the New Zealand Herald the judge should not continue sitting on the bench - and that has prompted the Law Society's national standards committee to open an inquiry into her conduct.

MacLennan wrote for Newsroom about the inquiry and the possible sanctions she faces for speaking up. Her piece is here.  She received strong backing from lawyer Benedict Tompkins who wrote for Newroom that the society's standards committee had made an "astonishing and inexcusable error of judgment".

The inquiry is set to take place on Monday, and MacLennan's requests to find out why she is being investigated and to be heard in person have so far been ignored.

Catriona MacLennan (pictured)

The AWLA has written to the president of the Law Society, Kathryn Beck backing MacLennan and calling on the investigation to be dropped immediately and for an apology to MacLennan.

In a strong criticism of the society's actions, the association vice president Tracey Fitzgibbon even says the original Judge Brandts-Giesen statements 'tacitly condone unlawful conduct' and offers the association's support for MacLennan's criticism of him.

"Given the questions the legal profession currently faces around its lack of transparency in dealing with issues in an open and frank manner, we are concerned with the method in which the NSC is conducting its investigation, particularly given the Law Society is an organisation that should be the most conscious of its obligations in this regard," the letter says.

"It is most regrettable that this stance has been taken at a time when the legal profession is already receiving troubling public scrutiny for attitudes towards women and towards those in less powerful positions."

The association says the investigation by the standards committee should never have started.

"The obligation on lawyers to treat other lawyers with respect and courtesy should not be exerted in a punitive way such as to discourage lawyers from calling out inappropriate conduct in the profession.

"This is a time when media attention has highlighted a tendency within the profession to close ranks when confronted by unacceptable conduct, rather than hold those responsible to account. Ms MacLennan's actions in this case - to openly criticise (albeit in a temperate and reasoned way) perverse views being wielded by a member of the judiciary were a brave step," Fitzgibbon writes.

"AWLA is alarmed that the primary, and apparently only, concern of the [national standards committee] is to investigate Ms MacLennan rather than condemn Judge Brandts-Giesen's comments, which are out of step with efforts to reduce domestic violence in this country."

"New Zealand has the highest rate of family violence in the developed world and AWLA takes any dismissal or words to that effect by members of the judiciary very seriously. The comments made by Judge Brandts-Giesen show a lack of understanding of the issues around domestic violence... and are particularly concerning in that they tacitly condone unlawful conduct.

"Ms MacLennan's concerns about the harm of those comments were shared by Justice Gendall in the High Court, who overturned the case on appeal and Chief District Court Judge Doogue who publicly declined to defend the comments."

The fact the society's standards committee had not explained the reasons for its inquiry into MacLennan and had not responded to her request to defend herself in person raised serious questions over due process and natural justice.

MacLennan, a former journalist, is a prominent advocate and commentator in the area of preventing and addressing domestic violence. The AWLA tells Beck: "We fully support [her] conduct and consider her fully qualified to make the comments she did."

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