ALWU welcomes finding of professional misconduct for ex-Russell McVeagh partner

On 22 June 2021, the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal found former Russell McVeagh partner, James Desmond Gardner-Hopkins, guilty of six charges of professional misconduct for sexually assaulting young female summer clerks in the summer of 2015-2016.

ALWU welcomes this decision. The Union was born in response to the Russell McVeagh story breaking in 2018, and is still working towards an end to sexual violence in the legal profession. The events the subject of the finding were made public three years ago, and themselves occurred more than five years ago. The Tribunal's decision this week finally delivers some sense of closure and justice for those affected by the actions of Gardner-Hopkins.

Three points are of particular note.

The first is the Tribunal's broad reading of what counts as professional conduct. Although the events occurred at social functions, they were still "connected with the provision of legal services" because they were designed "to enhance inter-personal relationships and to build a competent and trustworthy team whose combined talents will ensure a high standard of professional services are rendered" (at [98]). This means that firms and partners cannot hide behind the excuse of a "non-professional setting" in relation to behaviour at firm and team social events.

The second is the Tribunal's highlighting of the power imbalance between a summer clerk and a partner of a major law firm. This was an important part of the Tribunal's finding of misconduct. The Tribunal said at [134]:

Given the enormous power imbalance between the partner and head of the team, and the summer clerk in that team, conduct which comprised intimacy only just short of sexual intercourse, can only be characterised as disgraceful and dishonourable.

ALWU endorses this statement.

Third, though this is a welcome and long overdue decision, as the Tribunal noted, we must still remember the impact the sexual misconduct had on the lives of those affected. Some of those clerks have since left the profession, and others the country. In the words of the Tribunal at [185]:

It is a mark of shame for the profession that its most junior members have shouldered the burden of bringing these events to notice, but it reflects only positively on them.

ALWU's vision is for the law to be a safe profession where everyone can be supported to excel without the fear of being groped, harassed or made to feel uncomfortable by their colleagues and professional mentors. There is still plenty of mahi to be done, as shown by the events surrounding the departure of a partner from Buddle Findlay earlier this year.

Finally, we note that the Tribunal has yet to make a decision as to penalty. ALWU hopes it will be an appropriate one that assures the safety of others in the profession.

ALWU trusts that the legal profession will be reflecting on this decision and what it requires of all of us to maintain proper standards of decency and respect in practising the law.

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