Law Society standards committee pleads to disbar former Russell McVeagh partner James Gardner-Hopkins

Barrister Catriona MacLennan disappointed with Dame Margaret’s findings, says it doesn’t go far enough

The Law Society of New Zealand wants a former partner of Russell McVeagh to be found guilty of ‘disgraceful’ sexual misconduct against trainees struck off the Bars and Solicitors Roll.

James Gardner-Hopkins was found guilty of six counts of misconduct by the Solicitors and Carriers Disciplinary Tribunal.

Five of the charges related to his behavior with summer clerks at the 2015 ‘Big Three’ Christmas party in Wellington. The sixth charge stemmed from another company meeting held at his home.

The case became fundamental to starting the #MeToo movement in New Zealand and was a catalyst for wider awareness in the country’s legal sector.

In his responsibility decision Last June, the court found that Gardner-Hopkins’ behavior met the test of being “disgraceful or dishonorable.”

Earlier this year, the court then ordered him to serve a two-year suspension, which began on February 7, and pay a total of $108,008 in costs.

In Auckland High Court today, Gardner-Hopkins and the National Standard’s Committee cross-appealed against the court sanction decision. There was no appeal of the liability decision.

The committee argued for Gardner-Hopkins to be struck off the barristers and notaries roll or suspended for at least three years, while Gardner-Hopkins requested a reduction of the existing sentence.

His attorney, Julian Long, said his client admits he has nothing to be proud of, but told the three-judge panel there had been no incidents since Gardner-Hopkins worked as sole counsel .

“The only good that can come from this case, if we’re being honest, is that the profession has addressed a long-standing issue,” Long told the court.

Judge Rebecca Ellis also asked Long, “I know you don’t want to call it that, but why wasn’t it an indecent assault?”

I struggled for a long time to answer before the judge joked, “So it was, really.”

Committee counsel Dale La Hood argued the seriousness of Gardner-Hopkins’ conduct, his deny-and-defend response, and any “ongoing risk” he poses provided a combination of factors warranting disbarment. .

“Although this is not extremely serious criminal behavior, it is very serious misconduct,” he said.

The court, presided over by Judge Dale Clarkson, wrote in its sentencing ruling that the starting point of the offense was disbarment, but other principles weighed against that.

Gardner-Hopkins, who is now estranged from his wife, sat quietly in the back of the courtroom to watch today’s hearing.

Judge Ellis, Judge Anne Hinton and Judge Geoffrey Venning reserved their decision, underscored its importance to the industry and indicated that it could be several months before it is made public.

At the court’s liability hearing, former summer clerks said Gardner-Hopkins touched them inappropriately, with one woman describing she felt like a “piece of meat”.

The company’s human resources and board of directors have been made aware of the allegations against the then head of its environmental and natural resources planning team.

“…aggh, I just had summer clerks here to talk about the JGH at the Christmas party,” the HR officer responded, according to the accountability ruling.

In January 2016, an incident with one of the victims was revisited with Gardner-Hopkins by the firm’s managing director and board members after another incident with the young woman and another firm lawyer.

Following meetings in early February 2016, in which Gardner-Hopkins apologized and admitted misleading the managing director and senior partner, he was told his position was no longer tenable.

It was agreed that he would resign and leave the company soon. However, Gardner-Hopkins’ departure was announced to the rest of the company – with notice having been given to the summer clerks – in “glowing terms”.

He was also still in the business from time to time.

“The summer clerks described how difficult his presence at the company was for them. They perceived that Mr. Gardner-Hopkins’ departure was being announced in an artificially positive manner,” the accountability decision reads.

Some of the victims left the profession, while others turned to other areas of law.

“As one of them explained at the liability hearing, the fact that they weren’t safe from a partner made it feel like they couldn’t be safety anywhere in the workplace,” the court ruling reads.

The case began after the victims sought legal advice and filed a complaint with the NZLS in 2018. When the allegations emerged in the public arena, it led to a flurry of media coverage and social commentary amid of the MeToo movement.

“It is probably fair to say that these events, and the results that followed the two investigative reports, highlighted unacceptable behaviors and led to significant changes in many workplaces of the legal profession,” said noted the court.

Dame Margaret Bazley conducted an external review into Russell McVeagh and the allegations in the summer of 2015/16.

She interviewed 250 people and in her 89-page report, junior lawyers and staff were encouraged to “drink to excess”.

Bazley also found a culture with examples of rude, drunken, and sexually inappropriate behavior. She noted gaps in corporate governance and policies, including the lack of a code of conduct, which she said contributed to poor incident management.

Six pages of recommendations advocated sweeping changes to address bullying, sexual harassment allegations and company policies.

Russell McVeagh accepted all findings and said he would implement all recommendations.

As a series of scandals rocked some of the nation’s biggest law firms, a 2018 Law Society survey of more than 3,500 people found that roughly one in three female lawyers had experienced sexual harassment at a point in his career.

A regulatory task force set up by the Law Society and chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright has examined the problems of the legal profession in more detail.

He found that female lawyers have been subjected to “sexual objectification” for decades and made several recommendations, including new rules for lawyers that specifically require high personal and professional standards on sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.

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