Russell McVeagh appoints investigator into sexual misconduct claims and admissions

Russell McVeagh have appointed Dame Margaret Bazley to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct within the law firm. Newsroom are continuing to put pressure on the issue.

RNZ: Dame Margaret Bazley to head Russell McVeagh review

Dame Margaret Bazley will lead the external review of allegations of sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh.

The firm – which provides legal services to the government – is in the spotlight over serious allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at two senior lawyers at its Wellington office, and separate revelations of alcohol-fuelled sex in a boardroom.

Those allegations and the firm’s response will be reviewed, as well as any other claims, and its culture and policies regarding sexual harassment.

Russell McVeagh chair Malcolm Crotty said women subjected to sexual harassment, as well as current staff and partners, wanted to be assured the review would be thorough.

“We think that Dame Margaret’s significant review into police conduct and culture resulting from the Louise Nicholas case will provide that assurance,” he said.

She will be assisted by a woman lawyer whose appointment will be announced shortly.

Pip Greenwood, a senior partner at Russell McVeagh, said the firm was “truly sorry and horrified” that the sexual harassment had occurred.

They admit that harassment has occurred.

“We are committed to ensuring that such incidents do not happen again. We are extremely grateful to Dame Margaret for agreeing to conduct this review. We have been conscious, in making this appointment, to appoint a person who is truly independent as well as who has experience in such work.”

Newsroom is continuing their pressure: Bazley to head inquiry into ‘sexual harassment’

The allegations are far from what is commonly understood as sexual harassment. They include complaints of sexual violation, including rape.

The firm’s announcement also reveals Dame Margaret’s report on the firm’s handling of the 2015/16 scandal and other “improper conduct” will not be made public. It will instead be shared with “stakeholders”, the Law Society and the law schools of the country’s universities.

So how will the public know that this isn’t another sweeping under the legal rug?

Russell McVeagh not only has a responsibility to deal properly with any proven harassment and sexual assault, they have a responsibility to the (presumed) majority of lawyers who are not involved and not guilty.

Otherwise the firm and the profession will retain a general taint.

Newsroom has been told Russell McVeagh’s portrayal today of the assaults and misconduct during the summer clerk programme as “sexual harassment” has gone down poorly among women closely connected to the case.

One former Russell McVeagh lawyer said: “This review is getting off on the wrong foot because it is minimising, from the outset, the gravity and nature of the alleged offending against the summer clerks. It confirms my scepticism that this review is just another window-dressing exercise.”

If it is kept secret then it will easily be construed as window-dressing.

Russell McVeagh lawyers who knew of complaints from the summer clerks of sexual assaults did not refer the matter to the Law Society, as required under its rules. The Society only learned of the accusations against two male lawyers from the firm when a woman concerned raised them with it between eight and nine months after the incidents.

If they broke Law Society rules that at least should be addressed properly and openly.

The firm conducted its own inquiry, let the two men leave its Wellington office with at least one continuing on Russell McVeagh client work, and changed its summer clerk programme with new rules over alcohol and treatment of women.

So they took some action, but under cover. Should they have referred any incidents to the police? Or did they improperly protect perpetrators and the company’s reputation?  The public should have confidence that things were done properly, or will be done properly to correct past cover-ups.

In the course of inquiries into Russell McVeagh’s handling of the summer clerk programme allegations, Newsroom has been informed of incidents involving eight male staffers accused of sexual misconduct, harassment or inappropriate behaviour to staff. Some have left the firm.

The incidents date from 2000, and some involve senior lawyers. Five allegations date from the past five years. The incidents, by year, are in the graphic above.

While the firm’s terms of reference – or scope – for Dame Margaret specify the incidents in 2015/16 and its aftermath, she should have scope to inquire into these further incidents under its second term “any other improper conduct that may be brought to the attention of the external reviewer and the firm’s response to those claims.”

Her inquiry into the sexual assaults by police against Rotorua woman Louise Nicholas took three years from 2004 to complete and report.

A proper investigation will take time, but time can defuse the public glare.

Dame Margaret is regarded as a thorough and exacting inquisitor. She will be helped on this Russell McVeagh review by an un-named woman lawyer.

She is a good choice, but will the public know she has investigated well and covered this thoroughly?

It is likely to be proper that some information remain private/secret, there may be very personal revelations, and also differences of claims and perceptions between accusers and accused, so due process is important.

But Russell McVeagh has admitted “the incidents of sexual harassment that have occurred at our firm have had a profound effect on the women involved and we are all truly sorry and horrified that they occurred.”

Unless this is public clarified and properly addressed the law firm reputation and all their lawyers will remain under a cloud of suspicion. The company has:

  • 36 partners
  • 8 special counsels
  • 20 senior associates
  • 6 company managers plus a Chief Executive Officer
  • junior lawyers and staff.

They owe it to victims, to the public, and to all of those staff who are not involved in any harassment or law breaking, and to the legal profession, to come clean.

 

4 Comments

  1. Blazer

     /  March 8, 2018

    Russell McVeagh’s first choice Edward Carson, who prosecuted Oscar Wilde was unavailable,…due to more ‘pressing’…matters.Dame Margaret born in 1938 coming out of retirement is an olde fashioned choice for an olde fashioned firm coming to grips…with modern protocols.

  2. Gezza

     /  March 8, 2018

    God. That woman’s made a bloody fortune out of Labour & National.

  3. Ray

     /  March 8, 2018

    “For justice to be done it has to be see to be done” Lord Chief Justice Hewart
    This is a cornerstone of natural justice and is known to all the partners at Russell McVeagh but we seem to be having a Clayton’s investigation despite Dame Bazley leading it, if the results are to be kept secret.
    Just a bunch of clever lawyers covering their collective arses.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  March 8, 2018

      Dame Margaret, not Dame Bazley. Dames and knights are Dame or Sir first-name.

      I hope that this isn’t a lot of precious wee petals making a great fuss about nothing and running away crying. If it is, or relates to the sleazy but consensual happenings of a decade ago, it can only make women look feeble and like perpetual victims.