Catriona MacLennan: The Law Society's heavy-handed action against me will mean no lawyer will ever again publicly criticise a judge

After criticising a judge's decision to discharge without conviction a man who committed domestic violence - a decision later overturned - the Law Society held an inquiry into lawyer Catriona MacLennan's remarks. After they abandoned that inquiry, she now responds.

Lawyer Catriona MacLennan says the domestic violence act is excellent law but is not being applied properly. Source: Q+A

"Some lawyers and judges are concerned that my criticism of a District Court Judge will lead to an open slather of judge-bashing.

What they should actually be concerned about is that the Law Society's heavy-handed action against me will mean no lawyer will ever again publicly criticise a judge.

Public confidence in our legal system is maintained when judges' errors are acknowledged and corrected, not when there is unquestioning support in the face of a judicial mistake.

Read the Law Society's decision after their investigation into Catriona MacLennan

Read the Law Society's media release on the Standards Committee's decision on lawyer who said Judge wasn't fit to sit on the bench

The investigation into me will inevitably have a chilling effect on lawyers speaking out against injustice: Who else would want to face what I have gone through?

Lawyers, like every other citizen, have the right to freedom of expression guaranteed to us under section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

That is a precious right. Until the Law Society's investigation of me, I had understood in theory how important free speech was but possibly I had not realised how easily it could be threatened.

I am deeply concerned about the process of how I was investigated and I will be writing to the Minister of Justice to put my concerns before him.

The committee which investigated me never at any point spelled out exactly what it thought I had done wrong.

Both my lawyer and I asked for specific details of this and never received them.

Natural justice and the right to know the case against you are basic cornerstones of our legal system.

The fact that a Law Society committee would say it had no obligation to notify me of which professional rules I was alleged to have breached is shocking.

Until this happened to me, I would have assumed the Law Society would be an exemplar of strict adherence to the law and to proper procedure.

The committee's decision says that it "ought to have been apparent" to me what was at issue.

Really?

I can only imagine the outrage of the two senior lawyers on the committee if someone said that to their clients.

The reason it was important that I be notified of the exact details of the investigation was because neither I - nor anyone else who examined the law - could see any power for the committee actually to proceed with its action against me.

The other concerning aspect of the investigation was the committee's use of confidentiality.

My lawyer and I were advised last Thursday of the decision to drop the inquiry, but were told we could not tell anyone until the full written decision was published.

I explained that this would place me in a position virtually of being forced to lie, as everywhere I went people were asking me what was happening.

I suggested that the committee should announce that the investigation had concluded no further action was required and a full decision would be published shortly.

Rather than accepting that view, I was told I would be breaking the law if I told anyone.

There was absolutely no reason for secrecy at that time.

My observation of my own case, and of the revelations about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the legal profession, is that the Law Society adopts secrecy as its default option.

What that is doing is protecting perpetrators and allowing illegal and unsatisfactory behaviour to continue.

Immense damage has been done to the reputation both of the legal profession and of the Law Society itself by this year's revelations of behaviour that has been hushed up over many years.

If this misconduct is to end and if victims are to be protected, the Law Society needs to drop secrecy and start being far more open.

It also needs to start looking at things from the right perspective.

The initiatives announced to date by the Law Society to combat sexual harassment and abuse continue the well-worn track of focusing on better procedures for reporting by victims.

Female lawyers don't want better procedures for reporting this behaviour. We want it to stop.

For that to happen, the focus needs to be placed on the perpetrators and their enablers.

I became the subject of a Law Society investigation because I spoke out to support domestic violence victims.

In the absence of an apology to me from the Law Society, I would love to see it express at least some remorse by making a donation to Shakti Women's Refuge."

The Law Society has been contacted for comment.


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