Last week the Independent Review Panel tasked with reviewing the Law Society released a discussion document with an aim to call on the profession and public to provide input.
The review was prompted, in part, by the disclosures in 2018 of reports of sexual harassment of young lawyers and summer clerks at law firm Russell McVeagh. It's been seven years since the Russell McVeagh incidents occurred, and four years since the events made headlines across the country (arguably) prompting New Zealand's #metoo movement.
To date, the Law Society is legislatively mandated to regulate the profession, but it is also a representative body that promotes the interests of its members. The Law Society has been criticised for what would traditionally be described as a conflict of interest.
Newly appointed Law Society president Jacque Lethbridge said the document is a "critical step in the legal profession's work towards ensuring it examines itself root and branch to ensure the Law Society is a fit-for-future body, ready to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead".
"Critical to the future of our industry is ensuring the law profession and the Law Society maintains the trust and confidence of all New Zealanders. They rightly expect the legal profession to provide high-quality legal services, act with the highest integrity and to be an inclusive and welcoming place to work."
Feedback the panel receives will help guide decision-making on the future of the legal profession and the Law Society itself, she said.
The panel comprises former health and disability commissioner and University of Auckland professor Ron Paterson as chair, University of Otago professor Jacinta Ruru, and commercial barrister Jane Meares.
Paterson said the panel was consulting on a number of options that could fundamentally reshape the Law Society and the provision of legal services. One option being explored was whether a new independent regulator should be established.
The current complaints framework has been said to be slow, adversarial, lacked transparency, and there were perceptions that it wasn't sufficiently independent, he said. Essentially they're having to determine whether the current model is fit for purpose.
Other areas include looking at how Te Tiriti o Waitangi could be incorporated into the Lawyers & Conveyancers Act; assessing whether law practices ought to be directly regulated in addition to individual lawyers; and ascertaining how diversity within the legal profession might be promoted, for example.
The review, as mentioned previously, has been a long while coming. In the UK in 2004 Sir David Clementi concluded a review into the provision of legal services. It led to the establishment of an independent Legal Services Board (LSB) that would serve as a new "super regulator" of the 100,000 lawyers in England and Wales and would be accountable to the UK Parliament.
It's run by non-lawyers and, since the major reforms came into force in 2008, there have been mixed reviews, Paterson said.
Ireland, after some resistance from the profession, underwent major reforms in 2015. Scotland's legal profession had an independent review in 2018, where it was proposed that the complaints service be changed and to separate the regulatory and representative functions of its Law Society equivalent.
Interestingly, the reforms never came to fruition, although the Government is currently undertaking further consultation.
"We want a model that's fit for purpose in 2022 and beyond," Paterson said. "There are 16,000 lawyers in New Zealand. While our issues and challenges might be different to what's overseas - the incorporation of tikanga in law, for example - bullying, harassment, lack of diversity, and mental health and wellbeing issues are common across the board."
The panel is looking at initiatives in Canada, particularly British Columbia and Ontario, to reflect indigenous peoples in the legal profession and its regulation.
For now, Paterson is currently in the UK meeting regulatory bodies in England, Wales, Dublin, and Scotland. The review panel is scheduled to report to the board of the Law Society by the end of the year. Will the Law Society take those recommendations on board? That's another matter entirely.
Meanwhile, I can't reiterate enough that the review was prompted by the Russell McVeagh investigation in 2018, and the incidents dated back to 2015. Seven years later, I'm continually holding my breath for the profession to make the changes it's repeatedly pledged to tackle.