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Law firm Russell McVeagh strongly rejects another firm’s claim it did not inform it in a job reference for a lawyer that the man had been investigated for sexual assault.

Russell McVeagh claims its partners had two face-to-face meetings with the prospective employer, Duncan Cotterill, and was up-front about the inquiry into a sexual assault allegation involving the solicitor.

Duncan Cotterill has now responded to that new claim, saying it has no record of a second meeting and challenging Russell McVeagh’s portrayal of the first discussion.

It says it was only told there had been a sexual encounter between the solicitor and a clerk - with an implication it could have been inappropriate but consensual. It says there was no mention of Russell McVeagh investigating a sex assault claim or that the police had opened a file on the matter.

On Nine to Noon on February 15, Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood told Kathryn Ryan the firm had been asked for a reference in relation to one person "and we've been very open with that. Very open and transparent".

Asked whether this transparency included making explicit the circumstances in which the person left the firm, Greenwood replied: "I think the word transparent is the right way to describe that process." 

Greenwood's comments preceded a response from Duncan Cotterill.

Below are the two firms' statements on the reference process for the man in question:

Duncan Cotterill emails Newsroom on February 20:

Duncan Cotterill did employ a solicitor from Russell McVeagh who has been implicated in the allegations involving Russell McVeagh.

We can confirm that the role was advertised and the individual applied for the role directly.

Prior to employing this solicitor, we undertook our usual reference checks. We were made aware in a verbal reference check with Russell McVeagh that the solicitor had been involved in an incident, however we believed that the matter had been resolved.

A decision was made to hire the solicitor. In hindsight, we should not have made this decision.

In 2017, we became aware of new information. We were concerned about this and made further inquiries with the solicitor and Russell McVeagh. While we were working through this process, the solicitor resigned.

Russell McVeagh responds in an email to Newsroom on February 21:

Russell McVeagh today responded to statements made by a PR company on behalf of another law firm about a reference for one of its former solicitors.

We categorically confirm that we were fully open with the firm who came to us for a reference. We had prior consent from the male employee to fully disclose the incident that occurred at a Wellington bar while fully protecting the privacy of the woman involved in the incident. Given the sensitive nature of the issue, a verbal reference was deemed to be the most appropriate approach.

One of our senior partners met with a senior partner from the Wellington firm concerned. During the course of the conversation to set up this meeting it was made clear that there was a sensitive issue that needed to be raised. This meeting took place at Astoria cafe on February 3rd, 2016 and the full nature of what occurred was outlined.

As a result of that meeting, the senior Russell McVeagh partner was asked if a second meeting could take place with another partner from the hiring firm.

The discussion in this second meeting expanded on the incident in further detail, for example, there were questions asked in relation to an allegation of sexual assault, the nature of the police involvement and what further action was being taken, all of which Russell McVeagh answered fully and frankly.

After those two conversations, the Wellington firm hired the man concerned.

We reiterate and stand by our position as articulated on Nine to Noon and in our statement of 14 February 2018. We are committed to protecting the privacy and identity of the young women involved as they have requested.

Further we have been committed to and will continue to be transparent to the extent that privacy and employment laws allow.

Duncan Cotterill emails Newsroom on February 22 to respond to Russell McVeagh's statement:

Duncan Cotterill confirms that one of our partners met with a Russell McVeagh partner on 3 February 2016 to discuss a verbal reference for the solicitor. We were made aware there had been a sexual encounter between the solicitor and an intern which had been investigated by Russell McVeagh. We were not advised of the details of that encounter. We do not have a record of a second meeting at the time and are unable to recall whether one occurred.

As we have stated earlier, at the time we made the decision to hire the solicitor, we believed the matter had  been resolved. In  2017 we became aware of new information - that there were serious allegations concerning the sexual encounter and a possible police investigation, which caused us to make further inquiries with the solicitor and Russell McVeagh. While we were working through this process, the solicitor resigned.

The firm further clarified:

To clarify, Duncan Cotterill has no record of a second meeting and does not recall a meeting as outlined taking place. As stated previously, DC became aware of new information in 2017, that there were serious allegations concerning the sexual encounter and a possible police investigation, which caused us to make further inquiries with the solicitor and Russell McVeagh. While we were working through this process, the solicitor resigned.

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