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Dame Silvia Cartwright will provide honest and direct assessment of regulatory framework

26 April 2018 - By Nick Butcher

Dame Silvia Cartwright says the New Zealand Law Society regulatory working group into workplace behaviour will be "unashamedly honest" with its findings.

The five-member working group has been established to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces.

Dame Silvia has taken on more than a few complex human rights issues.

During her long career she tackled war crimes as a Judge and also headed an inquiry into the Treatment of Cervical Cancer and Other Related Matters at National Women's Hospital.

So being chair of the New Zealand Law Society regulatory working group that will look at the processes for reporting and taking action on sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces is challenging but familiar territory.

“The group is looking at the Law Society’s own regulations, therefore it will be a narrow inquiry in that sense as it looks at the process the Law Society has set up to ensure that it is widely understood, that it is clear, and palpably includes issues such as sexual harassment. Bullying is also one of my concerns and could equally be covered by the review,” Dame Silvia says.

Dame Silvia Cartwright graduated with an LLB degree from the University of Otago in 1967.

After many years of private practice, she went on to become the first women to be appointed to the High Court in 1993. Before then Dame Silvia was the second woman to be appointed a District Court Judge, which occurred in 1981. Dame Silvia was appointed Chief District Court Judge in 1989.

She was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1989 for services to women.

The regulatory working group will look at:

  • Whether the regulatory framework, practices and processes enable adequate reporting of harassment or inappropriate workplace behaviour within the legal profession;
  • Whether the regulatory framework, practices and processes provide adequate support for those affected by harassment or inappropriate workplace behaviour; and
  • The adequacy of the regulatory framework, practices and processes to enable effective action to be taken where such conduct is alleged.

Dame Silvia Cartwright says the resulting information will need to be readily available to the public and not just to lawyers.

And she promises they’ll be unashamedly honest with their assessment.

“If we find the regulatory framework is not sufficiently transparent for people to bring their concerns to the Law Society in the same way as it is if someone has taken money from a partners account for example, then that will be said,” she says.

Dame Silvia has not practised as a lawyer since 1981 and hasn’t been a New Zealand Judge since 2000.

She served as Governor-General from 2001 to 2006 and then took up a position as one of 13 international trial judges on the United Nations Tribunal investigating war crimes in Cambodia. She served on the tribunal until 2014.

Any preconceptions that Dame Silvia might lightly glance over the Law Society’s regulatory framework would be a miscalculation.

“As a former practising lawyer and Judge, subjective interests are not the issue. Objectivity is the whole point. It is very useful to have people as part of the working group who are not members of the profession. They will bring skills such as the ability to review research and be able to guide me in my reading of it,” she says.

Dame Silvia Cartwright says she is deeply concerned about the issues that have led to the scrutiny of the regulatory framework.

“Anything to do with the profession is a matter of personal interest to me. I don’t know too many women who haven’t suffered from some form of harassment or bullying in the profession and generally in society. It’s a subject that women generally felt they couldn’t talk about and just had to put up with. But now women are starting to talk about it which might mean society will have to change course, I certainly hope so,” she says.

Dame Silvia says during her lifetime she has witnessed what she describes as three distinct discriminatory attacks on women.

“First there was legislative discrimination such as some really absurd active laws that prevented women from taking on certain tasks. That was the easy battle. Then there was indirect discrimination where policies or social attitudes confined women to a lesser place, even though they had legal rights of equality with men, such as women having the right to own land but they couldn’t get a mortgage because they were a woman,” she says.

She says the current harassment and bullying issue in the legal profession seems to be the start of a third wave of discrimination.

“Some women in law are being discriminated against on the basis of their sex in ways that keep them off balance and render them unable to achieve their full potential,” she says.

Dame Silvia Cartwright says the effect of this behaviour on women can do far greater damage than simply a woman leaving the law profession.

“It could affect them for life. Assuming the narrative that we are hearing is largely correct, then this behaviour has to change for the benefit of the whole profession and its future,” she says.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019