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Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union deeply disappointed by result in James Gardner-Hopkins penalty hearing

The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) is deeply disappointed in the Lawyers & Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal’s decision to only suspend ex-Russell McVeagh partner James Gardner-Hopkins for a period of two years. The Tribunal released its decision on 17 January 2021, more than six years after the events themselves took place, and almost four years after they were made public. “This outcome is devastating for the complainants and for the profession as a whole,” says ALWU Co-President Tess Upperton. “The Tribunal had found that Mr Gardner-Hopkins had committed serious misconduct for all six charges, which involved touching summer clerks’ breasts and bottoms without their consent. This case was unusually compelling: four complainants were prepared to give evidence, multiple witnesses saw the conduct, it generated significant public interest, and Mr Gardner-Hopkins himself accepted the findings of serious misconduct. In the face of this evidence, disbarment appears inevitable. To then turn around and issue a two-year suspension for what the Tribunal itself calls “exploitative sexual contact” is not just disappointing. It’s dangerous.” “This outcome sends a clear message to practitioners that misconduct this egregious can result in nothing more than a slap on the wrist. If a partner can assault interns and not be disbarred, what standard are we holding ourselves to as a profession? Complainants are in an impossible position: either don’t speak up, or fight to be heard in a system that tries to stop you at every turn and end up with a judgment like this after six years.” The Gardner-Hopkins case calls the ability of the legal profession to self-regulate into question. “Alongside today’s outcome, the Law Society’s actions throughout the disciplinary process have shown little appetite to uphold the standards of the profession. Despite the seriousness of the allegations against him, Mr Gardner-Hopkins’ practising certificate was renewed on 1 July 2021 - a week after the Disciplinary Tribunal had found that he had committed six charges of misconduct. Although the Law Society has attempted to improve in this area since 2018, its approach to this case makes ALWU question whether the Law Society is fit to regulate the profession,” Upperton says. Despite today’s judgment, ALWU wants to applaud the complainants for coming forward, Upperton says. “Thank you to all those who have risen up against this behaviour in recent times. ALWU is committed to creating a profession we can both trust and hold accountable. Unfortunately, today’s judgment shows just how far we have to go.”