NZ Law Society denies 'threatening' free speech over an investigation into lawyer who criticised domestic violence ruling

The President of the NZ Law Society has denied they suppressed free speech during a highly publicised investigation into the professional conduct of an Auckland lawyer for criticising a judge's domestic violence ruling.

NZ Law Society president Kathryn Beck Source: 1 NEWS

Lawyer Catriona MacLennan was the subject of an investigation by the NZ Law Society's Standards committee after criticising a judge's decision to discharge without conviction a man who committed domestic violence - a decision later overturned.

The investigation into Ms MacLennan's comments was eventually abandoned, but the Auckland barrister yesterday released an opinion piece published on 1 NEWS NOW in which she alleged the Law Society's "heavy-handed action" against her "will mean no lawyer will ever again publicly criticise a judge".

NZ Law Society president Kathryn Beck has rejected that claim, and denied the Law Society kept "secret" from Ms MacLennan during the investigation the professional rules she was to have breached.

"I am hopeful that the effect of this will be that all other lawyers will understand that they do have freedom of speech, that they can criticise judges," Ms Beck said.

"But they do have to be careful not to undermine public confidence in the judicial system in doing so, so they just have to be careful not to cross that line.

"But I think we've found in this case that line wasn't crossed."

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

Ms Beck said the Law Society Standards Committee's decision did outline the specific item in the Rules of Conduct, 13.2, under scrutiny in Ms MacLennan's case: "A lawyer must not act in a way that undermines the processes of the Court or the dignity of the judiciary."

Ms Beck also elaborated on the Law Society’s particular concerns with Ms Beck's comments.

"Lawyers are absolutely able to criticise judges but it is most unusual for a lawyer to call for a judge to be removed and it was that comment that might have been a step too far, because lawyers are a little bit different to the public, there is a line," Ms Beck said.

Ms MacLennan also accused the law society in their investigation into her, of perpetuating secrecy within the profession that has allowed sexual harassment within the NZ legal profession, exposed this year, to be swept under the carpet for so long.

"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," Ms MacLennan said.

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

Ms Beck said investigations be the Law Society Standards Committee are subject to confidentiality as a matter of statute, and therefore details of the case could not be publicly talked about by Ms MacLennan before the decision of her case was published.

Ms MacLennan accused the Law Society in her opinion piece of placing her in a "position virtually of being forced to lie" after they informed her they were abandoning her case, but told her she could not reveal this publicly.

Ms Beck acknowledged "we are a bit constrained by statute. I understand that can be frustrating for people" but added that a Law Society regulatory group is currently reviewing the "framework" around this confidentiality model.

Ms Beck also was open in her concern and regret about the sexual harassment cases that have shrouded the profession in controversy this year.

"She (MacLennan) also makes reference to the harm to the profession from the headlines and the media coverage in relation to harassment and bullying in the profession," Ms Beck said.

"I mean, I don't disagree with her. I think that has done enormous harm to the profession and I'm very sad about that.

"But what it has also done is present us with an opportunity to get it right."

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