The Government has shied away from reviewing law firm Russell McVeagh’s public contracts in the wake of serious allegations against some of their staff.
But Justice Minister Andrew Little has criticised the firm’s decision to appoint its own reviewer and also the Law Society for its apparent inaction after eventually learning of the allegations.
Earlier this month Newsroom revealed claims of sexual harassment and sexual assaults against summer clerks at the firm’s Wellington office two years ago.
Last week Russell McVeagh attempted to draw a line under the situation and intense media coverage by announcing an ‘external’ review by a person to be appointed by the firm.
Most recently, a university law lecturer revealed new details of historical sexual misconduct at the law firm involving Maori women students invited to the firm’s bar.
The lecturer, Khylee Quince, took complaints from senior women students at the University of Auckland to Russell McVeagh after the incident but was told the sex was consensual and the two 19-year-old women involved were adult and needed to take responsibility for their own drinking.
The law firm is on a panel of lawyers employed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to undertake Government work, including sensitive issues such as ACC sexual abuse claims and human rights issues.
When asked whether a Government review into the firm was a possibility, Little said he had not taken advice on the subject, but his initial feeling was that the firm was not a public body so it would not be appropriate, or possible.
“They are a private organisation and they’ve got to conduct themselves or manage themselves in a way they see fit. Is it right for them to appoint their own independent reviewer?," Little told Newsroom.
“I would have thought a better step might have been to go to the Law Society and invite the Law Society to review the procedures," he said.
The Law Society, which regulates all lawyers in New Zealand, requires misconduct to be reported to it immediately under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act.
But it was eight or nine months before the Society was informed of the misconduct at Russell McVeagh, and only when one of the women involved reported it.
Little said it was a huge step for a victim to challenge one of the biggest law firms in the country and the Law Society should also be questioning how it responded to the complaint.
“I think this will have been, or should have been, a wake-up call for them to ensure to the extent they provide oversight to law firms is up to the mark," he said.
“In the end, the law society is largely a private body, they have a public function which is to provide disciplinary oversight of lawyers and their conduct, but it may well be that they’re going to have to look at what protection they offer staff of law firms.”
But he backed away when questioned about whether the Government, or government departments, should be reviewing their use of Russell McVeagh.
“Whether you’d cut off contact with a single law firm in circumstances like this, I think that would be a big step to take," he said.
“There’s no question what happened was an outrage, it was totally unacceptable, but whether that affects the total relationship between the Government and that particular law firm, I’m not sure it goes that far.”
That view is in contrast to comments from National MP Melissa Lee, who last week grilled MBIE officials at Select Committee about whether the firm should be engaged by the department.
Attorney-General and Economic Development Minister David Parker has oversight over the MBIE panel.
Procurement rules required good conduct from panel members, but he was not aware of MBIE looking to strike off Russell McVeagh and said he “wouldn’t jump to that conclusion” when asked if the firm should be dumped.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said there had been no conversations with Ministers or government departments about contracts held by Russell McVeagh or any possible repercussions.
“I think every member of the public would have an expectation after seeing some of those stories that those firms undertake their own internal processes to respond to what are some significant allegations, but beyond that I’ve had no conversations with anyone from Government Departments about any flow-on effects.,” she said.
Despite the Government’s cautious approach, the allegations could see a loss of private business for Russell McVeagh.
Newsroom has been told by one major organisation it is considering writing to the law firm to express their concern at the reports, while there have been calls on social media for companies to drop the firm.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission’s own sexual harassment scandal has been in the spotlight after it was revealed by Stuff.
In the report, it was revealed a young American woman ended her internship early after she was groped by the commission’s chief financial officer Kyle Stutter.
In response, the Justice Minister announced an independent inquiry into the processes and culture at the Commission to be headed by retired Employment Court judge Coral Shaw.
The Human Rights Commission declined comment on the extent it used Russell McVeagh and what type of work the firm undertook for it.