Sexual harassment and assault highlighted on International Women's Day

Thu 08 Mar 2018

Growing numbers of people are speaking publicly about sexual harassment and assault in Aotearoa New Zealand. This follows media outlet Newsroom ...

Growing numbers of people are speaking publicly about sexual harassment and assault in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This follows media outlet Newsroom breaking the story of sexual assault and harassment allegations at law firm Russell McVeagh and the global #metoo movement.

Ongoing media attention and further stories from advocates and victims has also prompted a number of initiatives. These include a #togetherinblack campaign launched today by Auckland HELP and other specialist sexual violence services to mark International Women's Day. Journalist Alison Mau has launched a #metoo investigation into cases of sexual harassment and assault in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Allegations of sexual assault and harassment at Russell McVeagh

Media outlet Newsroom first broke the story that University student summer clerks had reported being sexually harassed and assaulted by lawyers at Russell McVeagh in 2015-16. Victoria University confirmed that students reported this two years ago. Police were involved, but no charges were laid. Professor Mark Henaghan, Faculty of Law Dean at University of Otago, has said that a University of Otago student had also come forward regarding the allegations.

Further allegations have come to light about previous inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment at Russell McVeagh. Khylee Quince reported that, while a lecturer at the University of Auckland, she raised concerns in the early 2000s with Russell McVeagh about their employees' inappropriate sexual behaviour towards students.

Russell McVeagh has been criticised for their initial response including not reporting misconduct to the Law Society and allowing one of the lawyers to remain involved with legacy matters with clients. Lawyer and victim advocate, Catriona MacLennan commented:

"This follows a convenient and familiar pattern played out over hundreds of years: the male predator emerges from the situation with his reputation intact, still doing interesting and prestigious work and earning a very high income, while victims suffer the after-effects for life – a number of the five female summer clerks felt unable to accept jobs at Russell McVeagh.

The other step taken by the firm was to ban women solicitors from working on those files. This was said to be to protect staff. It is hard to credit that, in the 21st century, this would be considered an appropriate course of action."

Newsroom has reported that during their investigation they have "... been informed of incidents involving eight male staffers accused of sexual misconduct, harassment or inappropriate behaviour to staff."

Russell McVeagh said they conducted an internal investigation and they will now set up an external review to be led by Dame Margaret Bazley. Dame Bazley led the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct in 2007 and the review of player conduct and recruitment at Wellington Rugby.

All six University law schools and the NZ Law Students' Association have cut ties with Russell McVeagh, refusing sponsorship and cancelling recruitment programmes and other joint activities pending the outcome of the review. In addition, in response to concerns, University of Otago has cancelled their law camp.

The NZ Women's Law Journal said "... we feel it is best for us to put our relationship on hold [with Russell McVeagh]." They also said "In the coming months, we will also be taking action to help change our profession for good. We will not be silent any longer."

For more information about the allegations and actions at Russell McVeagh, see the Newsroom series of articles The interns and the law firm.

Sexual harassment and assault in the legal profession

Legal consultant and researcher Zoë Lawton has set up a blog for people to anonymously tell their stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault or gender discrimination in the legal profession. She will provide all responses to the NZ Law Society on 9 April 2018.

Update: Ms Lawton has now provided a copy of the blog to the Law Commission.

Elizabeth Hall, a barrister in Wellington, will conduct a survey to investigate bullying and harassment across lawyers in New Zealand, reported Radio NZ.

The Criminal Bar Association of New Zealand has said it will survey their members.

The Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association is planning to conduct a survey of anyone who has worked in a legal environment regarding their experiences. They also intend to launch a contact and support network.

The Law Society has since announced they will set up a working group to explore better reporting of harassment and a plan of action. Law Society President Kathryn Beck has said they will be reviewing the complaints process and looking at treating these issues as a professional conduct issue. For more information about the Law Society response, listen to an interview with Ms Beck on Radio NZ

Update: The Law Society has scheduled a free webinar for lawyers on workplace harassment and bullying on 4 April 2018 and is calling for expressions of interest from lawyers who want to participate in a regulatory working group on harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Stuff reported that Steph Dyhrberg, Wellington Women Lawyers' Association (WWLA) convenor, said WWLA was disappointed at how some responses to the Russell McVeagh allegations have focused on alcohol and the drinking culture:

"Women drinking isn't the problem. Predators are the problem. Law firms and the society being complacent is the problem. The traditional blokey culture, where bullying and harassment are tolerated or even rewarded, as long as the clients and the fees come in, is the biggest problem."

Former lawyer, Olivia Wensley has spoken out about sexual harassment in the legal profession and criticised the lack of action:

"I was disheartened to read the New Zealand Law Society's response to the Russell McVeagh scandal - saying that victims need to speak up and report offenders. This is completely unrealistic - why should the onus be put on the victim? They are the vulnerable party, with the most to lose from speaking up. Why not focus on seeking out the offenders? Putting the blame on the victim isn't the answer. There are many parties that know what is happening within a firm - but most of the time, the offender is protected due to status and power."

#metoo campaign

United Nations Women’s Human Rights Experts have spoken out in support of the global #metoo initiatives saying:

"This is a transformative moment, a liberating and an empowering moment. By speaking out at this scale, women are shaking centuries-old established discriminatory norms which normalise, accept and justify sexual violence against women and have constrained women in well-defined roles of inferiority and subordination. This is what is so significant about the moment. It is no longer just about individuals, it is about society. It is not about so-called morals and honour, it is about women’s rights as human rights. It is the system of the concentration of power and domination that is being challenged."

Several initiatives have been started to help victims and survivors report their stories of sexual harassment and assault both in the legal profession and more broadly.

Journalist Alison Mau has launched a #metoo investigation with a team of senior journalists looking into cases of sexual harassment and assault in all industries. The global #metoo campaign is aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. Ms Mau said:

"I've been waiting, since the Harvey Weinstein revelations, for the #metoo movement to come to New Zealand. I don't mean as a hashtag, or a social media campaign; I mean as a planned, organised outlet for survivors of workplace sexual harassment to come forward with their stories, access support, and help stop repeat predatory behaviour in Kiwi workplaces. I wanted to see Kiwis work together for it. But nothing happened."

Ms Mau said there is a triage system in place to help people who wish to make a police complaint or access specialist counselling, and she is working with TOAH-NNEST (Te Ohaakii a Hine-National Network Ending Sexual Violence Together).

Writer Danyl Mclauchlan has written an essay highlighting the importance of the #metoo campaign in bringing to light sexual harassment, particularly when it involves individuals in powerful positions.

#togetherinblack campaign

Auckland-based HELP, specialist provider of sexual assault support services, is encouraging New Zealanders to join the global movement against sexual harassment through #togetherinblack. To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, HELP is asking all New Zealanders to wear black in solidarity against sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual violence. Follow the Facebook event page to get involved.

Kathryn McPhillips, HELP Executive Director said:

“Sexual harassment, abuse and violence ends here. The time has come for those causing sexual harm to be held to account. Whether that harm is perpetrated in a boardroom, a back alley or a bedroom, it ends now. However, if New Zealand is going to have any chance of building on global movements such as #metoo and #timesup and improving our appalling sexual violence statistics, we need Government to smooth the routes to accountability for sexual offending.”

HELP is calling for four actions from the Government:

  • "Revisit the 2012 Law Commission Issues Paper ‘Alternative pre-trial and trial processes: possible reforms’
  • Move beyond mediation in response to sexual harassment. Any response must take into account the differences in gender and institutional power that breed sexual harassment
  • Encourage employers to take responsibility for providing a safe environment rather than evading liability when sexual harm has occurred.
  • Fund sufficient community treatment so that it is available for those who harm and those who are harmed – where and when it is needed."


Student groups have organised a rally and march in Wellington against sexual violence. The Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA), the Law Students’ Society (VUWLSS) and VUWFLS, the Feminist Law Society are organising the event on 15 March 2018. See the press release for more information. 

The Criminal Bar Association has published results from a survey of legal practitioners experiences of harassment and bullying. Both Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias and the NZ Law Society commented on the findings.

The Law Society has commissioned research firm Colmar Brunton to carry out a survey of lawyers including questions about harassment and bullying. It will be sent to over 13,000 practising lawyers in New Zealand on 6 April 2018. 

Related news

In honour of International Women's Day celebrated globally on 8th March, Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter launched a programme to celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Media reported that at the event, Former Prime Minister Helen Clark and Minister Anne Genter commented on the #metoo campaign, highlighting the need to address beliefs that allow sexual harassment to continue and to make it safe for women to speak out.

Prior to the Newsroom article series, media outlet Stuff reported that Women's Minister Julie Anne Genter said that the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment would begin collating data on complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace. Details have also been reported about further Government plans to address workplace sexual harassment.

Justice Minister Andrew Little has ordered a review of the procedures and organisational culture at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, following concerns about handling allegations of sexual harassment.

Related media

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NZ bar staff being trained to spot behaviour that leads to sexual assault, Stuff, 30.04.2018

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UN Women appoints Purna Sen as Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Addressing Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination, Press Release: UN Women, 11.04.2018

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Julia Shallcrass: Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, NZ Herald, 04.04.2018

Law Society launches phone line for workplace harassment support, Press release, 29.03.2018

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Law Society warns it can name and shame bad lawyers, The Dominion Post28.03.2018

'The fox is in the hen house' - Justice Undersecretary Jan Logie, Newshub28.03.2018

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‘I’ve already had my heart broken multiple times’: Ali Mau on hearing the stories of #MeTooNZ, The Spinoff, 06.03.2018

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Fresh allegations at law firm: 'This should not be happening', Radio NZ, 26.02.2018

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Fresh allegations against law firm Russell McVeagh, NZ Herald, 25.02.2018

“This letter is not intended to threaten Newsroom...”, Newsroom, 24.02.2018

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MBIE faces questions over using Russell McVeagh services, Radio NZ, 22.02.2018

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Sexual harassment: respect in law firms “basic starting point”, Press release: News from NZ Bar Association, Scoop, 16.02.2018

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