The interns & the law firm

Women lodge complaint against Russell McVeagh

The summer interns at the centre of the Russell McVeagh allegations are believed to have made a formal Law Society complaint against the firm.

The complaint comes ahead of the release of an external review of Russell McVeagh headed by Dame Margaret Bazley - expected in the next week.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck says 17 formal complaints of a sexual nature have been lodged since Newsroom broke the Russell McVeagh story in February.

Beck says legislation prevents the Law Society from being able to confirm whether a complaint has been made, or is being investigated. Newsroom understands one of the 17 complaints made in the last five months was made by the interns.

“Publication of information on any decision on a complaint is a matter for the lawyers standards committee dealing with the matter,” Beck says.

“If a complaint is sufficiently serious to be referred to the New Zealand Lawyers & Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, the presumption is that the Tribunal’s process is public.”

The allegations of sexual misconduct against five summer clerks revealed in February unveiled widespread problems of sexual violence within the legal industry. It gave rise to Zoe Lawton’s #metoo blog, which provided an anonymous platform for 214 tales of rape, abuse, and intimidation.

The story also prompted surveys by The Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association, Criminal Bar Association, and the Law Society, with nearly a third of female lawyers reporting to have been sexually harassed during their working life.

Meanwhile, it is understood the man at the centre of the allegations still holds a practising certificate, appearing on the Law Society lawyer registry website.  

Court documents show he was involved in a case last month. 

Newsroom understands the claims against the man weren’t isolated to 2015, where a further incident occurred months later, in September 2016, once he left the firm. A group of people intervened to help a young lawyer being pursued by the man at a bar in a provincial town following a conference.

The Law Society, which learned of the Russell McVeagh allegations in October 2016, decided against pursuing an own motion investigation under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act “on the basis that the victim/s did not want to make a formal complaint nor take the matter any further”, Beck told Newsroom in an earlier interview.

"We do not believe that, at that time, we could have done anything differently without breaching and disregarding the trust and confidence that had been placed in us when the events were disclosed confidentially. Our resolution is to make the appropriate changes so that such a set of circumstances does not arise in the future.”

If an own motion investigation was underway, the standards committee could, if warranted, refer a lawyer to the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal. The standards committee could seek an interim order for suspension of a lawyer's practising certificate. 

"Only the Disciplinary Tribunal can suspend or strike a lawyer off. An interim suspension order happens only in rare cases.

"When making an interim suspension order the Tribunal requires a charge to be laid, and to be satisfied that such an order is necessary or desirable having regard to the interests of the public or the financial interests of any person," Beck told Newsroom.

The Law Society has given little indication as to when the outcome of its working group, headed by Dame Silvia Cartwright, is to be released.

Meanwhile, the results of Russell McVeagh’s independent review conducted by Dame Margaret Bazley, are expected to be released in the next week.

Newsroom understands the results will likely reflect unfavourably on the law firm, which took home Law Firm of the Year at the 2017 NZ Law Awards.

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