Ex-Russell McVeagh partner guilty of inappropriate sexual conduct at Christmas party

New Zealand Law Society praises victims for their courage and says case sets 'clear benchmark' for acceptable behaviour
Wellington City Central Business District Aerial Point Of View

Wellington shutterstock; JoshuaDaniel

A former partner at top New Zealand law firm Russell McVeagh has been found guilty of inappropriate sexual conduct towards summer clerks during a Christmas party in 2015.

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal found six separate charges of misconduct in a professional capacity proved against James Gardner-Hopkins, who at the time of the incidents was the leader of the Auckland-headquartered firm’s environment, planning and natural resources group in Wellington.

When the allegations came to light in 2018, it sparked public demonstrations against Russell McVeagh, which apologised for the incidents and commissioned an independent enquiry into its workplace culture.

Five of the six charges — which were brought by the National Standards Committee on behalf of the New Zealand Law Society — related to Gardner-Hopkins' actions towards four summer clerks at the office party while the sixth charge related to his behaviour at a different firm function held at his home.

The tribunal found that Gardner-Hopkins had intimately touched four of the summer clerks inappropriately. This related to the first five charges. The sixth charge, involving a fifth summer clerk, involved ‘kissing and intimate touching’ which the tribunal described as ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’ given ‘the enormous power imbalance between the partner and head of the team, and the summer clerk’.  

According to the judgement, which was published on 24 June, Gardner-Hopkins paid 'little or no regard' to his professional obligations in respect of his interaction with others. It found his stated intention to purposely get drunk at the Christmas party and his neglect to 'pay any attention' to the type of behaviour required of him at a firm function represented a 'clear failure'. 

Alongside the need for senior lawyers to exhibit model appropriate behaviour, the tribunal noted that Gardner-Hopkins should have been aware of the 'obvious' power imbalance between a partner and junior staff members at a social function. 

'It is a mark of shame for the profession that its most junior members have shouldered the burden of bringing these events to notice, but it reflects only positively on them,' the tribunal said in its concluding observations.

The case originally came to light nearly three years after the summer clerks first reported the incidents to Russell McVeagh’s human resources department. Gardner-Hopkins had been required to leave the firm in early 2016, according to the judgement, although his identity was only revealed following the conclusion of tribunal.

The tribunal said it had considered the possibility that the complainants’ recollection of events may have been influenced by the discussions among witnesses and the passage of time, but was 'impressed by the care taken by the witnesses to recount events from their own memory'. 

'On more than one occasion, the witness referred to a clear memory of how she had felt at the time, because even if peripheral details had been lost to memory, the feeling (including that of powerlessness) had not,' the tribunal said. 

On the question of whether Gardner-Hopkins’ actions took place during 'the provision of regulated services' — a criteria that separates charges of misconduct and ‘personal conduct’ — the tribunal found that since the incidents took place at firm-sponsored social events financed by its entertainment budget and attended exclusively by Russell McVeagh lawyers and staff, the conduct was not “unconnected with the provision of regulated services”.

Responding to the decision, Tiana Epati, president of the New Zealand Law Society, said the case set a “clear benchmark for the standards expected of lawyers not only within an office environment but when attending work functions and events”. 

“I want to acknowledge the courage of the victims and witnesses who came forward and bravely gave evidence for the National Standards Committee. This is an important case for the legal profession,” she said. 

Epati added that new rules governing the behaviour of lawyers with an emphasis on bullying and harassment are set to come into force in July, including new reporting requirements “which emphasise the shared responsibility of law firm partners to ensure this behaviour does not happen”.

Russell McVeagh said it cooperated with the Law Society’s investigation and acknowledged that the events in question were unacceptable. The Law Society and Russell McVeagh have both said they will not be commenting further as the case remains before the tribunal for a penalty hearing. 

Last November, former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner Ryan Beckwith successfully appealed a misconduct finding against him after the High Court ruled his sexual activity with an associate had not breached professional rules because it had been deemed to be consensual. The tribunal concluded he had not exploited his professional status to take unfair advantage of the associate.

However, last June, former Baker McKenzie London managing partner Gary Senior was fined £55,000 with £48,000 costs for serious professional misconduct after he had attempted to embrace and kiss a junior fee earner in a hotel room in what the susbsequent judgement said amounted to ‘an extraordinary abuse of his position’.

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