Hamilton Crown Solicitor 'deeply regrets hurtful impact' on staff

Prosecutor Jacinda Hamilton.
Prosecutor Jacinda Hamilton. Photo credit: RNZ / Dan Cook

Guyon Espiner for RNZ

A review into bullying claims against the Hamilton Crown Solicitor has found she "at times fell below the standards expected" of a lawyer holding the Crown Warrant.

Crown Law has released the results of an investigation into claims of bullying at Hamilton Legal, where the Crown Solicitor Jacinda Hamilton holds the Crown Warrant for the region.

The review, by Maria Dew KC, found there was "valid basis for the concerns raised" but she "was not satisfied the Crown Solicitor had engaged in conduct that constituted bullying with reference to the definition used by Worksafe NZ."

A group of about five complainants told RNZ they were dismayed at the finding and said they had suffered extreme mental distress as a result of Hamilton's behaviour.

The Dew review found that the communication and management style of Jacinda Hamilton was "challenging, critical, and unpredictable" and this led to a "poor workplace culture" for many staff.

After receiving the review, Solicitor-General Una Jagose then conducted her own review into Hamilton's performance and found that at times she had fallen short.

"The Solicitor-General considers the factual findings of Ms Dew KC to be serious and accepts that some staff have been genuinely distressed as well as staff trust in the Crown Solicitor having been undermined," Crown Law said in a statement.

"Ms Jagose KC considers that the behaviour of the Crown Solicitor at times fell below the standards expected of a warrant holder."

Hamilton had accepted responsibility and "deeply regrets that some of her actions have had a hurtful impact in her workplace" and was committed to changing her behaviour.

Jagose said there were no concerns about the Crown Solicitor's integrity or performance as a senior prosecutor for the Crown.

"I have confidence in the Crown Solicitor's commitment and ability to professionally lead the office in a way that is consistent with the Terms of Office and with my expectations," Jagose said.

'Persistently aggressive, unpredictable' - complainants

The staff who believe they were bullied said they were "shocked and dismayed" at the findings of the investigation they initiated.

The complainants, speaking anonymously and for the first time, said they had suffered mental distress resulting from the actions of Hamilton.

In a statement released exclusively to RNZ, the complainants described Hamilton's behaviour to all of them, and many others they saw and knew of as "persistently aggressive, critical, and unpredictable."

The group allege the behaviour continued "over a period of years" and led to "extreme symptoms of anxiety and depression" in several of the staff employed at Hamilton Legal.

"We each suffered some or all of those symptoms and are still managing them. Nearly one year on from our complaint to Crown Law, those effects remain ongoing and need to be managed daily."

The group said they had chosen to stay anonymous in order to protect their future careers.

"We made the complaint to protect those at Hamilton Legal, now and in the future, from the behaviour we experienced from Mrs Hamilton. We have not made personal grievance complaints. We just want to get on with our lives and careers safe in the knowledge that others will not be affected as we have been."

The group said they were dismayed that behaviour by Hamilton was not found to amount to bullying.

They were also highly critical at what they believe is a lack of transparency.

Crown Law refused to give the complainants a copy of the Dew investigation, only a summary which they were not allowed to discuss, they said.

RNZ filed two Official Information Act requests, seeking to access the Dew investigation, but both were knocked back by Crown Law and so the report remains secret.

Hamilton did not respond to RNZ's requests for comment.

The Crown Solicitor's role

The Crown Solicitor holds a lot of power in the legal system in New Zealand, which is an international outlier in that all Crown Solicitors are lawyers in private law firms.

The Crown Solicitors work in private law firms but operate under Terms of Office, overseen by Crown Law.

The terms of office say that "Crown Solicitors and Crown prosecutors are expected to uphold the highest standards of personal and professional conduct."

There are 16 Crown Solicitors in New Zealand. All have a regional monopoly on prosecuting serious crime for the Crown.

Each Crown Warrant is issued by the Governor General.

Those appointed before 2013 have the warrant for life. Those appointed since have a 10-year term, but can apply to be reappointed after it expires.

In many centres, the Crown Warrant has been with the same firm for decades.

In Christchurch, Raymond Donnelly & Co has held the Crown Warrant since 1914. In Auckland, Meredith Connell has held the warrant since 1921 and in Wellington, Luke Cunningham Clere has held it since 1936.

The warrant is in the name of an individual - the Crown Solicitor - but the law firm assists them and the lawyers working under them are Crown prosecutors.

The most serious crimes - about 5 percent of all prosecutions - become Crown prosecutions and the Crown Solicitor has considerable sway over how they proceed.

No Crown Solicitor has ever been removed from office in New Zealand.