Tiana Epati has expressed her optimism in the ongoing work to review the organisation’s place in the legal profession and the wider New Zealand community.
The New Zealand Law Society president detailed why the body’s board commissioned last month an independent review of the organisation’s structure and function in the latest issue of LawTalk. The review, which was endorsed by the organisation’s council, is expected to lead to far-reaching changes Epati said will outlast her term as president.
The most pressing issue being addressed by the review is whether the peak legal body’s dual-model structure – as a regulator and as a membership organisation for the legal profession – is still fit-for-purpose. Tackling that issue also provides an opportunity for the profession to decide about “who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be,” she said.
The introspection was brought about by the allegations of inappropriate behaviour that have rocked the profession in the last two years. Epati said that it became clear to her a few months into her presidency “that incremental change was not going to achieve the outcomes we need,” as public confidence in the profession took a hit because of the scandal.
Central to the issue is the complaints process for the profession, as defined by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 (the Act), and its focus on consumer protection. The same issue was raised by Dame Silvia Cartwright, who last year chaired the working group that looked into how sexual violence and harassment, bullying, and discrimination in the legal profession can be addressed.
Epati said that the Law Society has been hard at work on strengthening its policies and processes dealing with sensitive complaints, ever since the working group’s report was released. She said, however, that the organisation is “constrained by our existing legislation” because only misconduct at the highest level is subject to the current disciplinary regime, based on a strict reading of the act.
“This leaves out of reach a wide range of unacceptable behaviour which is damaging to the reputation of the whole profession,” she said. “This is not a position we can tolerate as a profession, or that the public will tolerate of us. There is an expectation within the profession and wider society that we will protect those who are vulnerable and hold to account those who are responsible for perpetrating unacceptable behaviour.”
Nonetheless, the leader is positive about the work set before the Law Society. She said she has been “greatly moved” by support of the organisation’s board and council, the two elected bodies that are considered as the primary governance groups of the profession. She also appreciates the outpouring of support from members of the profession, who she said have written to her to offer their full support.
“I have never felt us so united as a profession over the need to be strong and look forward,” she said.