Last week Catriona MacLennan, a lawyer and media commentator, wrote a piece published at newsroom about disciplinary action being taken against her by the Law Society. I won’t put large excerpts here, as I think it’s important to go there and read the whole thing, especially the details of her experiences as a woman lawyer.
In short, she was asked by the NZ Herald to make comments on the statements of a judge who had “granted a discharge without conviction to a man who had assaulted his wife, a male friend and his daughter.” The statements of the judge were dismissive of the seriousness of the offence, possibly using that old trope that catching your wife cheating on you was enough to drive a man insane and excuse any crime of violence he might commit. Women, of course, don’t get any such leeway and until the 20th century a wife could not use evidence of her husband’s adultery to get a divorce. It’s similar to the notion that a man could be excused for committing violence against another man who made a pass at him.
The removal of the “provocation” defense was supposed to change this kind of thinking, particularly in the courts. But clearly the Queenstown judge was having none of it, stating “Really, this is a situation that does your wife no credit and does the [male] no credit” and “There would be many people who would have done exactly what you did, even though it may be against the law to do so.”
Because Catriona made comment in the media, this is apparently grounds for the National Standards Committee of the Law Society to begin a disciplinary hearing. The same Law Society that has failed to take any disciplinary action against lawyers who commit sexual assault and harassment, because no-one has ever filed a for disciplinary proceedings. This committee would have seen and heard all the media reports regarding Russell McVeagh, and one would hope was working on some disciplinary action around that.
I can imagine it would be less than ideal if all lawyers went to the media and started slamming judges for their ruling and sentences. I understand that the Law Society would want to maintain the integrity of the justice system, and the part lawyers play in it, and therefore it wouldn’t be useful to undermine the judiciary by going after them when a lawyer loses their case. I can imagine that being a judge is a tough job, and judges have to make some difficult calls.
But there are times when judges make decisions and statements that are so beyond the pale that they need to be called up on it. A trained and qualified lawyer who has experience practicing in that particular area of law (Catriona having “21 years of commentary on domestic violence”) would surely be the best person to make comment. The Law Society and their disciplinary committee have discretion over cases they would take forward process, at least according to this page.
It is inconceivable to me that someone of the stature, courage, experience, advocacy and expertise of Catriona would be put through this. It looks like nothing but silencing. Out of interest, I would love to see what the gender (and ethnic) make-up of this committee is, because it’s very hard not to see this as the old-boys network protecting their own.
The other thing that really strikes me about this whole issue is the lack of prominence it’s been getting. This is a freedom of speech issue, and yet the usual suspects who make lots of noise about freedom of speech are not so vocal – although I may have missed it. Last year there was an open letter about freedom of speech being in danger at our universities, and it would be lovely if those 27 “high-profile New Zealanders” might have something to say about the kind of suppression that is happening here. It seems to me that the freedom-of-speech advocates tend only to be vocal when it’s the current power structures and systems that are
threatened to be upheld. They tend not to be so loud protecting the free speech rights of marginalised groups.
Well here’s your chance, people. Catriona has every right to make comment about a judgement and a judge who has done what this one did. The Law Society really needs to take a good hard look at itself here, and make meaningful change.