Complainants give evidence behind screen on first day of ex-Russell McVeagh partner's disciplinary tribunal

A former partner at law firm Russell McVeagh facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault has today appeared at a disciplinary hearing in Wellington, three years after the claims were first revealed.

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Two women described their fear of the man and described feeling manipulated by him. Source: 1 NEWS

The man’s name, and those of the complainants and witnesses, are suppressed.

He’s facing seven charges of misconduct, or unsatisfactory conduct, by the national standards committee of the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal, the profession’s disciplinary body.

In its opening statement, the standards committee said the case is one of power and power imbalances, which are central to the relationship between partners and interns, clerks or law students.

The committee told the hearing the man abused his position of power and acted with the privileges and protections allowed to partners in law firms.

The alleged incidents occurred at two different Christmas parties in 2015, but the allegations only came to light in 2018 vis media outlet Newsroom.

It was seen at the time as New Zealand’s first #MeToo moment, sparking protests around Wellington and leading to universities cutting ties with the firm.

The first five charges against him relate to his behaviour towards female summer clerks at an office Christmas party, with another charge relating to a team Christmas party at the lawyer’s home.

The first witness and complainant today gave evidence behind a screen to protect them from being retraumatised by seeing the man’s face.

She told the hearing she felt ‘manipulated’ and ‘trapped’ by the man’s actions that night and that he had put his arm around her in a way she felt was ‘inappropriate’, after allegedly pulling her in to a space where no one else could see them.

The man is alleged to have draped his arm around her waist and then placed his hand on her pelvis.

“The way that he touched me felt like an immediate invasion,” she told the tribunal.

The woman described herself as being a “field mouse in the eye of the tiger”, and said she was heartbroken an incident like that happened at her first job at a law firm.

This complainant also testified that she witnessed an alleged sexual harassment and assault of another complainant later in the evening.

The lawyer for the man at the centre of the allegations apologised to the complainant for her experiences and said the former partner is also sorry for how she feels.

As part of their cross-examination, the defence lawyer used a simulation of the venue where the alleged offending is said to have occurred.

While the complainant was giving evidence behind a screen, it was audibly clear she had become upset during this part of the cross-examination, and she told the hearing that "re-walking those steps feels like a really foreboding and awful thing to do".

The woman repeated several times that the incident was not a case of invasion of personal space, but rather a situation where she wanted to get out of as fast as she could.

“It took me over a year and a half to restore my own power, and to start to find men I trusted in different work places, or start to consider having relationships with people again,” she said.

The second complainant at today’s hearing also gave evidence behind a screen so she did not have to face the practitioner.

She said at the same Christmas party, she had seen him singling out various young women on the dancefloor and putting his arms around them.

She said he then came up to her and put his arm around her waist, then pulled her away from the group she had been dancing with and was trying to touch her breasts.

“My immediate reaction was to into fight or flight mode,” she told the hearing. “I wriggled out.”

Later in the evening, she and a group of others, including the first complainant, were waiting for taxis home at around midnight.

She says the man came up to her and ran his hand over her top where there were wine stains, resting his hand on her right breast.

The woman said the moment he touched her breast “felt like forever in my mind”, although she said it probably only lasted for five seconds.

The man then tried to get into a taxi with the group, asking one of the women to come home with her, but someone pushed him out and one of the complainants said she told him to “f*** off”.

The woman says she was so ashamed of what happened and was shocked because the man was a partner at the firm who had a reputation as a very good lawyer.

She told the hearing she was conscious that if she spoke out against him, he would have the power to destroy her career, describing him as “quite intimidating”.

The second complainant also said she no longer drinks or socialises with colleagues and is also extremely conscious of not staying late at work events or being left alone with older, male colleagues.

Both women mentioned the man appeared drunk at the event at separate moments during the proceedings.

The man at the centre of the allegations continues to hold a practising certificate, and also denies any sexual or predatory motives to his alleged behaviour.

In 2018, Dame Margaret Bazely carried out an independent investigation into Russell McVeagh.

The report found the law firm had a culture involving “excessive drinking” and at times involving “crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

Dame Margret investigated the complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct made by the summer clerks working there over 2015 and 2016.

She found Russell McVeagh had failed to investigate the incidents and “did not understand the gravity of the situation”.

The report made more than 40 recommendations, including better policies and training.

In a statement made earlier this year, a spokesperson for the firm said it was close to implementing 95 per cent of the recommendations.

The hearing continues tomorrow.