A Standards Committee determined that a lawyer’s conduct towards another lawyer at a professional dinner and dance was unsatisfactory.
The Committee had received a complaint by a female lawyer (Ms B) against a male lawyer who was around thirty years her senior (Mr A) concerning his behaviour toward her at the professional social event. Ms B complained that, while they were seated at a dinner table, Mr A repeatedly touched her arm and inappropriately encouraged her to drink (alcohol). Ms B also complained that Mr A later grabbed her lower back and bottom as she passed him on the dance floor.
The Committee first considered whether Mr A’s conduct fell within professional or personal conduct boundaries. It concluded that Mr A’s conduct at the event could not be said to be unconnected to the provision of regulated services. The event had been organised by a legal professional body and was attended primarily by lawyers and legal staff; Mr A had attended the event in his capacity as lawyer. It therefore determined that Mr A’s conduct could be considered in terms of s 12(b) or s 7(1)(a)(i) of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 (Act).
In relation to the arm-touching and comments, the Committee considered Mr A’s direct apology to Ms B adequately addressed that aspect of the complaint. However, the Committee advised Mr A to “be more mindful of other people’s personal boundaries and space when conducting himself in professional and social/professional settings”.
In relation to the dance floor incident, the Committee said it had “no hesitation in finding that [Mr A’s] conduct was unacceptable”. It said:
“Unsolicited and unwelcome sexualised physical contact of this nature has no place in the legal profession.”
The Committee therefore determined that Mr A’s conduct would be regarded by lawyers of good standing as being unsatisfactory conduct under s 12(b) of the Act.
The Committee also determined that Mr A had failed to maintain professional standards and failed to treat Ms B with respect and courtesy, in breach of the Conduct and Client Care Rules.
Mr A was ordered to pay a fine of $5,000 and costs of $1,000. However, the Committee noted that both parties had emphasised the excessive quantity of alcohol consumed by Mr A at the dinner, and it accepted that this had contributed to his behaviour. The Committee offered to reduce the fine to $2,500, on the condition that Mr A undertake an alcohol addiction programme.
The Committee also considered that publication of its decision was necessary or desirable in the public interest and therefore, under s 142(2) of the Act, it directed this anonymised publication. The Committee stated that its decision:
"…deals with important issues concerning the standard of conduct expected of practitioners’ obligations when acting in a professional capacity even when not directly providing legal services.”
Law Society comment: This decision was made prior to the decisions of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal in National Standards Committee No. 1 v Gardner-Hopkins (https://www.justice.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Decisions/2021-NZLCDT-21-National-Standards-Committee-1-v-Gardner-Hopkins.pdf and https://www.justice.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Decisions/2022-NZLCDT-2-National-Standards-Committee-1-v-Gardner-Hopkins.pdf).
It cannot be known whether the Standards Committee would have reached a different conclusion (and referred the matter to the Disciplinary Tribunal) had it made its decision after the release of the Gardner-Hopkins decision.