For the first time ever the New Zealand Law Society is proposing changes which mean that discrimination, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and other unacceptable conduct within the legal profession will be clearly defined; there will be a clear threshold for when unacceptable conduct should be reported to the Law Society; and there will protection for anyone who makes a report or complaint. We will also require law practices to provide a report each year, declaring that these issues are being managed appropriately.
This month we are openly consulting with the profession and the public on these proposed changes to lawyers’ conduct rules under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act. These changes form an important part of a range of measures we have taken, and plan to take, to address these issues.
When I became President of Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa (the New Zealand Law Society) in April 2019, the profession was still reeling from revelations of discrimination, bullying, harassment and other unacceptable conduct within the legal community. There were valid questions being asked about the culture of the profession and how we could change for the better. Changing our conduct rules is one of the ways the Law Society is playing a leadership role in targeting and eliminating the culture of bullying and sexual harassment which exists in some parts of the legal community.
One of the questions we have been asked is why it has taken so long to develop the proposed changes. The answer is simple; we wanted more dramatic changes to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. We worked closely with the Government to explore options to change the regulatory framework. However, we were told this was not possible at this time.
We then had to change tack – to investigate what we could do to strengthen our powers within the existing regulatory framework. We looked at the one area where we could make change without legislative amendment; the rules and regulations that applied to professionals both in New Zealand and overseas. We sought advice from regulatory and ethics experts.
The changes we are now proposing were informed by this advice, as well as the work and recommendations of the Law Society’s Independent Regulatory Working Group chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, the 2018 Workplace Environment Survey and concerns and experiences courageously shared by many within the legal community. While all this has taken time, I believe the proposed changes as robust as we could make them, as a result.
It is important that since these issues became public in 2018, the Law Society has not stood still. We have introduced a number of other initiatives to support healthy, safe, respectful, and inclusive legal workplaces, including free counselling (evidentially there is a link between poor mental health and poor workplace behavior) and an 0800 number for those affected. I’ve also spoken widely and publicly about the fact that these issues go beyond gender and highlighted the need to talk about race and disability when discussing discrimination and harassment. All voices, on all forms of discrimination, need to be heard.
I am confident the Law Society is doing what we can, as one of the leaders in the profession, to help bring about change. But we cannot, and must not, do that alone. Real and long-lasting change will only take place when everyone takes responsibility. Whether that is showing up to support a colleague and calling out inappropriate behaviour or consciously self-educating, doing the work and helping to build a supportive, non-discriminatory environment within your workplace. We all need to play our role if we are to bring about fundamental, enduring change for the future of our profession.
Tiana Epati is the President of New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa. She is also a partner at Rishworth Wall & Mathieson and is the Lawfuel “Staedlar” Lawyer of the Year for 2019.