New Zealand Law Society - Tribunal finds lawyer guilty of misconduct for inappropriate sexual behaviour 

Tribunal finds lawyer guilty of misconduct for inappropriate sexual behaviour 

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal has found Mr James Desmond Gardner-Hopkins, a former Russell McVeagh Partner, guilty of misconduct on six charges brought by a National Standards Committee on behalf of the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa.

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“At the outset, I want to acknowledge the courage of the victims and witnesses who came forward and bravely gave evidence for the National Standards Committee. This is an important case for the legal profession,” says Tiana Epati, President of the New Zealand Law Society.

“The decision by the Tribunal sets a clear benchmark for the standards expected of lawyers, not only within an office environment but when attending work functions and events.”

The charges related to inappropriate sexual conduct at two Christmas functions in 2015 when the lawyer was based in Wellington. The Tribunal found that the conduct in all the charges relating to six separate incidents met the test of being regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable.

The first five charges related to Mr Gardner-Hopkins’s behaviour at the firm’s Christmas party. At that party, five incidents of drunken behaviour occurred with junior staff members involving tactile dancing and other physical contact. The sixth charge related to his behaviour at another firm function held at his home.

The Tribunal noted in its decision that: “The profession expects of its members that those who work with lawyers are respected and safe. A basic behaviour expected of lawyers towards those they work with is that they are respectful and do not abuse their position of power. There is no place for objectification of women or indeed any person, by those in the profession of law.”

An important aspect to this case is the finding that the conduct was not “unconnected with the provision of regulated services” because the Christmas party was an event only open to members of the firm, paid for by the firm and that there was nothing disconnecting that function from work.

In its decision the Tribunal also draws attention to the need for senior lawyers to model appropriate behaviour, and states in this case that Mr Gardner-Hopkins should have been aware of the apparent power imbalance between a partner and junior staff members at a social function.

“This decision underlines the changes the Law Society and legal profession are making to deal with sexual harassment and other types of unacceptable conduct,” adds Ms Epati.

“New rules governing the behaviour of lawyers with an emphasis on bullying and harassment come into force from 1 July 2021. This will include new reporting requirements which emphasise the shared responsibility of law firm partners to ensure this behaviour does not happen.”

This matter will now be set down for a penalty hearing. As the case remains before the Tribunal, the Law Society will not be commenting further at this time.

Read the judgment on the Tribunal’s website

Complaints and disciplinary process

The New Zealand Law Society is part of a co-regulatory system that considers complaints and disciplinary matters relating to all lawyers. The Law Society administers one aspect of the complaint and disciplinary process – the Lawyers Complaints Service – which receives all complaints about lawyers. All complaints made to us are referred to an independent Standards Committee.

There are 22 Standards Committees across Aotearoa New Zealand made up of lawyers and lay people appointed by the Law Society. Everyone on a Standards Committee is a volunteer and appointed for their skills and experience. Law Society staff support the Standards Committees in carrying out their functions.

Under the Act, Standards Committees are responsible for investigating and deciding on the outcome of complaints made about lawyers. Standards Committees also have the power to undertake an "own motion" investigation. Standards Committees are able to give a direction for negotiation, conciliation, or mediation, make findings of unsatisfactory conduct, make a referral to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, or decide to take no further action.

The Tribunal is an independent and separate body administered by the Ministry of Justice which operates much like a court. Only the Tribunal may make a finding of misconduct and suspend a lawyer or strike them from the Roll of Barristers and Solicitors. Being struck off means that a lawyer cannot practise law in the future.

Information about the co-regulatory environment we operate within