Judge shortage and lawyer abuse major issues for judicial system

Two news items that may or may not be related.

NZH: Judge shortage pushing courts to crisis point, New Zealand Bar Association says

The law society and the New Zealand Bar Association are calling on the Government to increase the number of judges available to carry out district court business to address critical resourcing levels.

The organisations are speaking out after a column written by the Chief District Court Judge, Jan-Marie Doogue, in which she said there would be a redeployment in judicial resource from the criminal jurisdiction to the Family Court, to meet the backlog.

NZLS Criminal Law Committee convenor Steve Bonnar QC said the access to justice in the district court was under threat and moving resources from the family court to the criminal courts would only move the problem.

New Zealand Bar Association president Clive Elliott said resourcing had reached a critical point and immediate intervention by the Government was needed.

A serious backlog had arisen in the Family Court where there were about 8000 Care of Children Act cases waiting to be heard, he said.

“The situation in the Family Court is one example. It is clearly serious when the welfare of so many children is likely to be affected by these delays. The reality is that the only way the courts can manage is by pushing further delays on to litigants.”

Prior to the passing of the District Court Act 2016, although there was cap on the number of permanent judges who could be appointed, lawyers as well as retired judges could be appointed as acting judges.

The 2016 Act now restricts appointment of acting judges to those who are former judges of the District Court and are under 75 years old so there is a much smaller pool of people who can be appointed as acting judges.

In real terms, there has been a fall in the total number of judges. In 2017 the total number of all judges was 179. By the end of May 2018, this will have fallen to 167 judges. The new cap in the legislation is 160.

On top of that, the cases judges were dealing with had increased in complexity and seriousness in criminal cases and there had been a considerable rise in the number of without-notice applications and defended applications in the Family Court, Elliott said.

He said the strain on the judiciary had been considerable and the country could not afford to lose experienced judges.

Lawyers become judges, and that isn’t a happy camp either. a report says the profession is facing a ‘cultural crisis’.

Stuff: Widespread harassment, bullying and racism identified within the law profession

The legal profession in New Zealand is facing a “cultural crisis” after a survey uncovered wide-ranging and ongoing sexual harassment, racism and bullying.

Commissioned by the New Zealand Law Society, the survey follows allegations of sexual abuse and harassment aired by some female lawyers earlier this year.

The Law Society said 13,662 lawyers were invited to take part in the confidential survey managed by Colmar Brunton, with 3516 responding.

Out of that total, the survey found widespread harassment throughout the profession, with 33 per cent of female lawyers experiencing crude or offensive behaviour that made them feel offended.

The survey found most victims of harassment were employee lawyers in a law firm. According to the data, the harasser was most likely to be the target’s manager, supervisor, partner or director.

Women were more likely than men to be harassed by someone in a more senior position.

Six per cent of lawyers who had been sexually harassed described the harassment as an actual or attempted rape or assault.

The survey found the reported nature of sexual harassment varied.

While non-physical forms of sexual harassment were most common, two thirds of lawyers who had experienced sexual harassment said it included some form of unwanted physical contact.

Over half of all lawyers surveyed said they had suffered some form of bullying in their career, with 21 per cent of lawyers experiencing bullying in the last six months.

Just over half of those who described being subjected to sexual harassment said it had been a one-off occasion.

Both sexual harassment and bullying behaviours were more common among lawyers working in criminal law, the survey said.

Bullying was more common in family law.

New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck called the findings a “cultural crisis”.

“When nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life, when more than half of lawyers have been bullied at some time in their working life, when nearly 30 per cent of lawyers feel major changes are needed to the culture of their workplace, and when 40 per cent of lawyers under 30 believe major changes are needed to their workplace culture, we must call a spade a spade – there is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession,” she said.

Nearly one in five lawyers – 18 per cent of those surveyed – reported having been sexually harassed in a legal environment at some time in their working life.

The reported levels of abuse in the legal profession are alarming. An abusive environment will deter people from staying in the profession.

I don’t have anything to do with the legal profession, but I have had some experience in the legal/court system. This has been a long drawn out farce for three years and still waiting for a conclusion. While what I have been involved in may be abnormal it isn’t isolated, and has been blighted by lengthy court delays, only some of which can be blamed on a vexatious but incompetent lay litigator.

I have seen in a number of proceedings where judges have been very lenient dealing with repeated non-compliance with basic court rules and legislation, repeated abuses of process, associate harassment, and allowing an incompetent litigator to waste a lot of court time and resources. Judges have allowed themselves to be played by someone with a long record of legal and social media abuse.

Successive judges have ignored ongoing harassment while they have pandered to a malicious prick.

But this is probably only a small symptom in a court system under real pressure, and a legal profession that may well be forced to confront a crisis of abusive culture.



Sexual misconduct in the legal profession

The story of historical sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh is growing into a wider condemnation of ‘the legal profession’, with claims the problem ‘is endemic’.

Newsroom kicked this off with a series of articles (a big investigative task with a major law firm the target), beginning on 14 February with The summer interns and the law firm

Something went badly wrong with the student law clerk programme at national law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington over a recent summer.

Newsroom has learned of a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards the female students that saw our leading universities intervene, at least one report made to the police and a later reform of the clerk programme including a ban on alcohol and the launch of a helpline for them to seek support.

The matter went before the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the NZ Law Deans, who oversee the law schools sending graduates to Russell McVeagh and other workplaces.

Victoria University said today its staff were “extremely disappointed that the incidents occurred” but found Russell McVeagh senior staff “genuinely concerned” for the welfare of those involved and determined to ensure the safety of future clerks.

16 February: ‘Zero tolerance’ flies in face of reality

A former Russell McVeagh lawyer*, with close knowledge of its handling of complaints of sexual assault and harassment against summer clerks, says beware of the law firm’s carefully worded public responses. 

Having watched this saga unfold from a relative degree of proximity in my opinion Russell McVeagh’s reaction to the very compelling allegations of sexual assault and harassment was commercial and focused on harm minimisation – and not exclusively in the best interests and wellbeing of the vulnerable victims as well as several staff who had bravely chosen to support them.

This disjunct between what Russell McVeagh has said to the media and the reality is best illustrated by comparing what actually happened to the representations made in the carefully crafted spin that highly paid PR consultants would have encouraged Russell McVeagh to pump out.

17 February: Lawyers intervened to protect clerk

A further incident has come to light involving one of the men at the centre of claims of serious sexual assault at law firm Russell McVeagh – just months after his departure from the law firm.

Two informants have provided detailed information to Newsroom about events that played out at a lawyers’ conference after-party in a provincial town.

Newsroomrevealed on Wednesday that five clerks on the firm’s summer programme made complaints of serious sexual assault and harassment against two male lawyers at the firm.

In the latest revelation, a group of people had to intervene to help a summer clerk being pursued by one of the two men at a bar, where lawyers from the conference had gathered late at night.

21 February: Law firm not told of complaints against solicitor

A premier national law firm that hired a former Russell McVeagh solicitor after he was accused of sexual misconduct says it was led to believe by a reference check that the incident was minor.

The firm, smaller than Russell McVeagh but a leading name in the profession, says it would not have hired the man in its Wellington office if it had known what went on at the El Horno bar on a January night in 2016.

The lawyer was accused of sexually assaulting a “summer clerk” who worked at Russell McVeagh. The incident was reported to the Police at the time but no action was taken.

22 February: Why wasn’t the Law Society told?

Allegations of serious sexual assaults against students on law firm Russell McVeagh’s summer clerk programme, which should have been reported by the firm’s lawyers at the earliest opportunity, took eight to nine months to reach the Law Society.

Newsroom has confirmed the matter reached the profession’s regulator only when one of the young women involved told the society, despite lawyers’ clear obligation to report such misconduct.

The lengthy delay in the matters being brought to the attention of the Law Society could mean Russell McVeagh lawyers are in breach of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act whistleblowing procedures.

The Law Society regulates all lawyers in New Zealand including in relation to misconduct.

Its president, Kathryn Beck, has confirmed in an interview with Newsroom that it first became aware in September 2016 of the Russell McVeagh summer clerk allegations of sexual assaults which occurred in December 2015 and January 2016.

22 February: Law firm vs law firm

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”.

24 February: “This letter is not intended to threaten Newsroom…”

Law firm Russell McVeagh instructed Auckland QC Adam Ross to write to Newsroom upbraiding us on our reporting of the allegations about the sexual abuse and harassment on its summer clerk programme two years ago.

His letter says the scandal has presented a “very difficult situation for the firm” and claims Newsroom’s informants have “other agendas they are not disclosing to you”.

The letter wrongly claims Newsroom has published material without knowing its validity, or knowing the unspecified “circumstances with the firm” of anonymous sources whom Russell McVeagh is trying to identify. It questions the practices and fairness of our Investigations. Newsroom rejects these claims; our team has been painstaking and meticulous in its research and confirmation of material.

This is a story of abuse of power and as such those providing information wish to distance themselves from further abuse of power. That is why we fiercely protect sources, but we would not run a story without them. It is why, in a story such as this, confidentiality is necessary.

26 February: ‘Review could cause more harm than good’

Law firm Russell McVeagh announced an external inquiry into itself on Friday, after more than a week of controversy over how it handled complaints by summer clerks of sexual assault and harassment by its male staff in Wellington two years ago.

Here, two lawyers specialising in legal ethics and employment law, Kathryn Dalziel and Stephanie Dyhrberg, examine the wisdom of what Russell McVeagh announced – and set out in bullet points what it should be doing.

26 February: Law firm faces new sex claims

A university law lecturer has revealed new details of historical sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh – this time involving Māori women students being invited to the firm’s bar and included in binge-drinking and sex in a boardroom after a seminar.

The lecturer, Khylee Quince, took complaints from a senior woman student at the University of Auckland to Russell McVeagh after the incident, but was told the sex was consensual and the two 19-year-old women involved were adult and needed to take responsibility for their own drinking.

She has spoken exclusively to Newsroom after posting details of the incident and the firm and university’s lack of follow-up on her Facebook page.

Her statement comes in the wake of the scandal over allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assaults against summer clerks at the same firm’s Wellington office two years ago.

Russell McVeagh issued a statement yesterday acknowledging incidents of “poor behaviour involving consensual sexual events, including on our premises” over the past 20 years.

For the first time it accepted such misconduct had occurred at partner level. The statement said sexual misconduct allegations of this type had been resolved by “termination of employment or a partner departing” describing that as “action appropriate to the severity of the misconduct”.

The incident Khylee Quince has detailed occurred in the early 2000s in the firm’s Auckland office and is one of six separate incidents involving Russell McVeagh male lawyers that Newsroom has been informed of and is investigating. These involve several men who have gone on to achieve high prominence or influence in the law.

Lawyer Linda Clark adds her views at The Spinoff: How the legal profession has excused and minimised the Russell McVeagh scandal:

It’s the biggest scandal to rock the legal profession in years. Yet the official response to the Russell McVeagh revelations been so woefully inadequate, says special counsel Linda Clark.

I work with a group of simply terrific young women. They are bright, engaging, hard working and professional. These women – and so many others like them – need to feel supported by the legal profession and in particular by senior lawyers and partners. They need to feel secure enough to talk about harassment without fear. They need to know that disclosing an incident of harassment won’t cost them their job. They need to know that the profession won’t try to minimise what happened to them, or find ways of excusing the behaviour. They need to know that they will be heard.

So far, the legal profession has struggled to provide the leadership these young women deserve.

The Law Society issued a statement last week, crafted in the kind of passive vanilla sentences so favoured by my profession.

‘The disclosures over the past week will have made every lawyer in New Zealand consider their workplace and also their profession,’ the Society said. Yes, indeed.

Lawyers are experts at ‘considering’. But, as we now know, not so expert at a range of really important other things, like keeping young women safe at work, or being proactive to ensure allegations of misconduct (or possibly crimes) are investigated quickly and thoroughly, or even – and I’m not being glib – knowing how to drink alcohol without being a creep.

In recent years, a number of law firms have developed diversity programmes, seminars targeted for women, engaged consultants to educate partners about unconscious bias. I have participated and even led some of these. They demonstrate a genuine commitment in the profession to support and encourage women to progress.

But in conversations with young women lawyers this week it has been truly depressing to see how those initiatives – as welcome as they are – have not moved the dial.

To fix that the profession needs to be honest with itself. It needs to listen to young women and it needs to do more (much more) to ensure these women are not subjected to harassment, unwanted touching or assault. If they are, then the profession needs to call out the perpetrators without delay, even the so-called good guys.

That’s a big ask.

Lawyers are generally very good at protecting themselves, legally. But Russell McVeagh and other firms are under increasing pressure to address this properly and publicly.

If the stories keep coming out without being adequately addressed, and without ” the profession needs to call out the perpetrators without delay”, then the whole profession is tainted.

RNZ this morning: Sexual misconduct in law firms an ‘open secret’ for decades

Several Victoria University law students on internships at Russell McVeagh have complained of being sexually assaulted by lawyers two years ago.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince said that some years ago a student had told her of an evening drinking session at Russell McVeagh’s Auckland office which ended with staff having sex on the boardroom table with several students.

Ms Quince said the reason why she decided to speak out was because it was an “open secret” that those sort of things had gone on in big law companies for years.

Khylee Quince told Morning Report she’s had dozens of messages since going public at the weekend.

“Lots of survivor stories, ranging from the very serious to the quite bizarre, behaviours around humiliation and forcibly embarrassing young women for fun.”

Ms Quince said the Auckland incidents had been a wake-up call to the university in advising students about alcohol and looking after themselves, although interns continued to go to the law firm.

This issue looks like it isn’t going to go away easily.