Three years after claims of sexual misconduct at a high-powered law firm caused outrage, one of the alleged perpetrators is going before a lawyers’ tribunal

The former Russell McVeagh partner at the centre of sexual harassment and assault allegations which rocked the law firm is facing misconduct charges from his profession’s disciplinary body, three years after the claims first came to light.

However, hearsay evidence from confidants of the man’s alleged victim will not be heard by the disciplinary tribunal after a ruling that it was inadmissible. The man’s name and the detail of the alleged offending, are suppressed.

In 2018, Newsroom revealed a group of summer law clerks in Wellington had been subjected to sexual assault and harassment during their time at the law firm two summers earlier.

In the wake of the investigation, all six of the country’s university law faculties cut ties with Russell McVeagh while it investigated the claims, and hundreds of university students marched to the firm’s Wellington offices to protest sexual harassment in the workplace.

A damning review into the law firm’s handling of the allegations, carried out by Dame Margaret Bazley at Russell McVeagh’s request, described a “work hard, play hard culture” that involved sexually inappropriate behaviour.

At the time, Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty said the firm’s board and partners “fully accepted” Bazley’s findings and had committed to implementing all of her nearly 50 recommendations as part of a 10-year plan to change its culture.

Three years on, the former partner is facing eight charges of “misconduct or (alternatively) unsatisfactory conduct” at the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal – which hears and determines disciplinary charges against members of the legal profession.

The first five charges related to an out-of-office Christmas function which took place in Wellington, while the remaining three charges involve events at a “team” Christmas party held at the lawyer’s home.

The charges will go before a hearing in Wellington in the week of May 17. However, hearsay evidence from five “confidants” of the partner’s alleged victim in support of one of the charges will not be heard, after the tribunal rejected an application from the national standards committee to have it admitted.

In its ruling, the tribunal said the alleged victim had never made any written statement to the Law Society, while she had not “shown any inclination to involve herself in this disciplinary process”.

“Indeed, she has, through her barrister, Maria Dew QC expressed an overt desire not to participate.”

“Sadly, there are many cases of sexual abuse that are heard throughout the country every day and, despite the obvious trauma caused to victims, they are expected to give evidence to support the allegations of fact made against an accused person.”

The tribunal said it had no criticism for the victim, who had “made a considered decision on legal advice not to engage”.

However, it could not admit the hearsay evidence on the basis of her unwillingness to take part, as she was not “unavailable” as required by law.

“While the Committee has decided not to issue a subpoena to compel her attendance before the Tribunal, she remains ‘available’ to give evidence.”

There had been discussions with the alleged victim about using screens or CCTV to “shield her” from the lawyer and reduce any trauma from giving evidence, she had still declined to participate.

“In this case, while we have considerable sympathy for the alleged victim’s position, there is no ‘compelling reason’ why she should be ‘exempted from giving evidence,’ to use the words of [previous case law].

“Sadly, there are many cases of sexual abuse that are heard throughout the country every day and, despite the obvious trauma caused to victims, they are expected to give evidence to support the allegations of fact made against an accused person.”

If the hearsay evidence was admitted, there was “an unacceptable risk that the practitioner could not meet the specific allegations made against him by the committee, if one or more of the five confidants gave evidence of what was said to them”.

“There is no statement from the alleged victim to provide a foundation from which the Tribunal could conclude whether what was said to the five confidants was consistent or inconsistent. None of the five confidants have any personal knowledge of what actually took place.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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