Lawyer facing discipline for criticising judge's controversial domestic violence comments

Catriona MacLennan says the investigation is an issue of freedom of speech.
Catriona MacLennan says the investigation is an issue of freedom of speech. Photo credit: Supplied

The Law Society is reportedly investigating one of its own members after she criticised a judge's ruling and comments in a domestic violence case.

Catriona MacLennan told Newshub she was "completely stunned" to learn she was being investigated.

It follows a case in the Queenstown District Court in December, when a judge discharged a man without conviction on charges of assaulting his wife, children and a friend.

In delivering the sentence he said: "There would be many people who would have done exactly what you did, even though it may be against the law to do so," according to NZME.

Ms MacLennan publicly criticised the judgement and called for the judge to be sacked.

She said his comments and sentence displayed a complete lack of understanding of domestic violence, he had victim blamed and minimised the assaults, and the discharge without conviction was inappropriate.

The High Court has since granted an appeal against the sentence.

"The judge saying 'many people would have done what you did' condones and excuses domestic violence, and I don't think it's appropriate for a judge, while sentencing on criminal charges, to condone breaking the law," Ms MacLennan told Newshub.  

She says earlier this month the Law Society's National Standards Committee notified her by letter that she was being investigated, and asked her to respond to a series of questions.

The committee has the power to open its own investigations, in addition to taking complaints from members of the public.

"The legal profession and the Law Society have come under a lot of criticism this year for a lack of action about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and so it surprised me that they would have time to pursue this issue with me," said Ms MacLennan.

"I think this is an issue of freedom of speech. I'm an expert on domestic violence and I made my comments on the basis of my 21 years' experience, and if I can't speak out about domestic violence and be a lawyer, well that's going to mean that I can't be a lawyer anymore."

Ms MacLennan said the chief district court judge, police, the Crown and the High Court had all criticised or objected to either the judge's comments or sentence.

"So it seems a little strange to me that the committee is objecting to me criticising the judge."

She said she hopes that the committee decides to dismiss the complaint because it affects her ability to continue her work.

"Obviously my voluntary domestic violence work I think is very important, and I can't have the Law Society or anyone else telling me what I can or I can't say."

A Law Society spokesperson said it is unable to make any comment on whether or not it is investigating a particular matter, or whether it had received any complaints.


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