Stuff: Former Russell McVeagh lawyer at centre of #MeToo controversy gets another year's suspension

The lawyer at the centre of New Zealand's leading #MeToo moment has earned himself another year's suspension from the profession.

James Gardner-Hopkins was censured and suspended from practising for two years by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal in January, after he was found guilty of six charges of professional misconduct involving five young women.

But the National Standards Committee appealed against the period of the suspension arguing that he should have been suspended for at least three years, if not struck off. A ruling out on Wednesday shows three High Court judges agreed and they added another year to his suspension, taking it to the maximum period.

The judges said his conduct in 2015, when the events took place, was serious, exploitative, sexual misconduct. It was not the conduct of a fit and proper person to be a lawyer, they said.

The court noted that he had taken steps in the past six years to have therapy and change his life personally and professionally, so had reduced the chances of him doing anything similar again.

If he had been dealt with much closer to the time of the events his misconduct would have justified being struck off, it said.

The judges said Gardner-Hopkins’ financial position would not help him when it came to the disciplinary proceedings.

“The statements of income and expenditure filed on his behalf allowed for ‘unavoidable’ living costs of $144,000 a year after tax. A budget at that level does not suggest dire circumstances,” they said.

Gardner-Hopkins' inappropriate sexual behaviour against students working as summer clerks, occurred at two work-related Christmas parties in Wellington in 2015 and became the focal point of New Zealand's #MeToo movement.

At the misconduct hearing in 2021, several women spoke about Gardner-Hopkins' behaviour, which included him inappropriately touching a number of students.

The women said he touched them on their bottoms and breasts and tried to kiss them.

The tribunal had praised the then-students, and two junior lawyers who also gave evidence at the original hearing: “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.”

At least one had left the profession, one left New Zealand specifically because of the events, one changed her area of practice to avoid contact with Gardner-Hopkins, and one felt her career had been adversely affected.

At the penalty hearing in December, Gardner-Hopkins told Standards Committee lawyer Dale La Hood he would not be appealing the tribunal's findings. However after the Standards Committee appealed against the penalty, he cross-appealed against the penalty, saying the suspension should have been shorter.

Gardner-Hopkins had accepted deliberately intimately touching women both at the work party and at his house. "I totally accept the culture of the team that I led and fostered was inappropriate," he said at the penalty hearing

La Hood submitted Gardner- Hopkins had only accepted the offending at the last possible opportunity and had yet to express any remorse.

Later in the hearing, Gardner- Hopkins apologised to his victims.

Gardner-Hopkins was forced to resign from Russell McVeagh in early 2016. He had been manager of the firm’s environmental planning and natural resources team in Wellington.

He later moved to Auckland and worked for himself in the same area of law. The suspension began in early February.

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