An independent review committee was appointed to review the bar. Photo/NZME
Last week, the independent review panel reviewing the Law Society released a discussion paper with the aim of inviting input from the profession and the public.
The review was prompted, in
part, by disclosures in 2018 of reports of sexual harassment of young lawyers and summer clerks at the Russell McVeagh law firm. It’s been seven years since the Russell McVeagh incidents happened and four years since the events made headlines across the country (arguably) sparking the #metoo movement in New Zealand.
To this day, the Law Society is mandated by law to regulate the profession, but it is also a representative body that promotes the interests of its members. The Law Society has been criticized for what would traditionally be described as a conflict of interest.
The Law Society’s new President, Jacque Lethbridge, said the document is a “crucial step in the work of the legal profession to ensure that it examines itself thoroughly to ensure that the Law Society is a body ready for the future, ready to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead”.
“It is vital to the future of our industry to ensure that the legal profession and the Law Society maintain the trust of all New Zealanders. They rightly expect the legal profession provide high quality legal services, act with the utmost integrity and be an inclusive and welcoming workplace.”
Feedback received by the committee will help guide decision-making on the future of the legal profession and the Law Society itself, she said.
The panel includes former health and disability commissioner and professor at the University of Auckland Ron Paterson as chair, Professor Jacinta Ruru at the University of Otago and commercial lawyer Jane Meares.
Paterson said the panel is consulting on a number of options that could fundamentally reshape the Law Society and the delivery of legal services. One option under consideration was whether a new independent regulator should be established.
The current complaints framework has been described as slow, adversarial, lacking in transparency and perceptions that it was not independent enough, he said. Essentially, they need to determine if the current model is fit for purpose.
Other areas include examining how Te Tiriti o Waitangi could be incorporated into the Lawyers and Carriers Act; assess whether law firms should be directly regulated in addition to individual lawyers; and determining how to promote diversity within the legal profession, for example.
The review, as mentioned earlier, has been a long time coming. In the UK in 2004 Sir David Clementi concluded a review of the provision of legal services. This led to the creation of an independent Legal Services Board (LSB) which would serve as a new “super regulator” of the 100,000 lawyers in England and Wales and be accountable to the UK Parliament.
It is run by non-lawyers, and since major reforms took effect in 2008, reviews have been mixed, Paterson said.
Ireland, after some resistance from the profession, underwent major reforms in 2015. The Scottish legal profession was the subject of an independent review in 2018, where it was proposed to change the complaints service and separate regulatory and representational functions from its Law Society equivalent.
Interestingly, the reforms never materialized, although the government is currently undertaking further consultations.
“We want a model fit for purpose in 2022 and beyond,” Paterson said. “There are 16,000 lawyers in New Zealand. Although our issues and challenges may be different from what happens overseas – the incorporation of tikanga into law, for example – intimidation, harassment , lack of diversity, and mental health and well-being issues are common at all levels.”
The panel examines initiatives in Canada, particularly in British Columbia and Ontario, to reflect Indigenous peoples in the legal profession and its regulation.
For now, Paterson is currently in the UK meeting with regulators in England, Wales, Dublin and Scotland. The review committee is to report to the Law Society’s board of directors by the end of the year. Will the Law Society take these recommendations into account? It is quite another matter.
In the meantime, I can’t repeat enough that the scrutiny was prompted by the Russell McVeagh Inquiry in 2018 and the incidents date back to 2015. Seven years later, I continually hold my breath for the profession to bring about the changes promised to many times. to tackle.