Law’s sex­ual vi­o­lence ‘epi­demic’

Se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions at top Welling­ton le­gal prac­tice just ‘tip of ice­berg’ for pro­fes­sion, claims coun­cil­lor

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS - Melissa Nightin­gale

AWelling­ton City coun­cil­lor says al­le­ga­tions of sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour to­wards young fe­male law­clerk stu­dents are a wake-up call for law firms to change their be­hav­iour.

At least two staff mem­bers have left Rus­sell McVeagh, one of New Zealand’s top law firms, and chief ex­ec­u­tive Gary McDiarmid con­firmed it had re­ceived “se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions” about events in Welling­ton more than two years ago.

Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, which con­firmed al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing sev­eral of its stu­dents, said it un­der­stood po­lice con­tin­ued to have an “open file” on the mat­ter.

Coun­cil­lor Fleur Fitzsi­mons has taken on the new city safety port­fo­lio and is tasked with tack­ling sex­ual ha­rass­ment in Welling­ton.

“Sex­ual vi­o­lence is an epi­demic within law firms and needs to stop,” Fitzsi­mons said.

She be­lieved what had hap­pened at Rus­sell McVeagh was only “the tip of the ice­berg” in the le­gal pro­fes­sion.

Fitzsi­mons said law firms, like many other or­gan­i­sa­tions, were now be­ing held ac­count­able be­cause of cam­paigns such as the #metoo move­ment and women de­cid­ing to speak out.

Firms needed to be proac­tive and change their cul­ture to pre­vent sex­ual vi­o­lence oc­cur­ring, she said.

“The law pro­fes­sion now has a pro­fes­sional, le­gal and moral duty to take ac­tive steps to change the cul­ture within law and to stamp out sex­ual vi­o­lence.”

The New Zealand Law So­ci­ety was un­able to con­firm whether a com­plaint had been made re­lated to the al­le­ga­tions.

Law So­ci­ety pres­i­dent Kathryn Beck said while the so­ci­ety would in­ves­ti­gate all com­plaints re­ceived, the gov­ern­ing leg­is­la­tion did not al­low dis­clo­sure of any in­for­ma­tion about com­plaints or in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Beck said that any form of sex­ual ha­rass­ment was to­tally un­ac­cept­able in le­gal work­places.

It is un­der­stood the al­le­ga­tions against Rus­sell McVeagh in­volved stu­dents in the firm’s sum­mer law­clerk pro­gramme.

“Where al­le­ga­tions were made, we im­me­di­ately con­ducted a full in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion at the time and ini­ti­ated a for­mal process,” McDiarmid said. “Those who were the sub­ject of the al­le­ga­tions left the firm fol­low­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

He said he would not dis­cuss spe­cific de­tails for pri­vacy rea­sons.

News­room.co.nz, which re­vealed the al­le­ga­tions yes­ter­day, said two in­ci­dents hap­pened at Christ­mas func­tions and an­other at the El Horno Bar in Welling­ton.

At least one com­plaint was made to po­lice about a man’s be­hav­iour at El Horno.

Vic­to­ria Univer­sity vicechan­cel­lor Grant Guil­ford said he was aware of sev­eral young women who had al­legedly ex­pe­ri­enced sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour at the time.

At that time, the univer­sity be­lieved it was a po­lice mat­ter so it fo­cused on sup­port­ing the young women and set about en­sur­ing a safe en­vi­ron­ment for fu­ture work­place stu­dents.

Guil­ford said the univer­sity had since worked with Rus­sell McVeagh and oth­ers to make ma­jor changes to the clerk­ship pro­gramme.

This in­cluded bet­ter in­duc­tion, help hot­lines for those ex­posed to bad be­hav­iour and it re­in­forced HR poli­cies.

McDiarmid said the firm had “zero tol­er­ance” to bad be­hav­iour.

“[We] will have no hes­i­ta­tion to act if we are alerted to be­hav­iour that con­tra­venes our val­ues, with ro­bust pro­cesses in place to in­ves­ti­gate and re­solve any is­sues.

“We con­tinue to take all pos­si­ble steps to cre­ate a ‘ speak out’ cul­ture and as part of this, have made it clear to our staff that there will be no reper­cus­sions for speak­ing out in any cir­cum­stance.”

McDiarmid said Rus­sell McVeagh had al­ways taken em­ploy­ees’ con­cerns “ex­tremely se­ri­ously”.

“We are com­mit­ted to ad­dress­ing any is­sues of ha­rass­ment at Rus­sell McVeagh, and in our pro­fes­sion gen­er­ally, by mak­ing it known that any such be­hav­iour is to­tally un­ac­cept­able and will not be tol­er­ated.”

The law pro­fes­sion now has a . . . duty to take ac­tive steps to change the cul­ture and to stamp out sex­ual vi­o­lence. Fleur Fitzsi­mons

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