Widespread harassment being 'swept under the carpet' - former lawyer Olivia Wensley

A former lawyer says some members of the legal profession are helping to hide their colleagues’ bullying and harassing behaviour.

A survey of 300 members of the Criminal Bar Association found 88 percent had experienced or witnessed bullying or harassment - but only 16 percent had reported it.

Olivia Wensley, a former lawyer who has recently spoken out about her own experiences of sexual harassment, told Newshub Nation that people in the industry are turning a blind eye and using non-disclosure agreements to silence victims.

"There are firms that are hiding these perpetrators, who are practising today," she said.

"They sweep it under the carpet. Of course, why wouldn't they? They're not being watched. It needs to be made patently clear exactly what they must report,” she told host Lisa Owen.

“The main problem is the legal profession here is small, everyone knows each other, and there are grave career implications if you speak out.”

Elizabeth Hall, from the Criminal Bar Association, said some respondents were afraid of becoming the "focus or the target" if they reported the behaviour.

"There's also a perception that it won't make any difference. This is a cultural thing. This is an ingrained way of treating people. If I complain, that person's not going to change."

Law Society President Kathryn Beck said it was a significant problem that the Society hasn’t received any formal complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, despite reports of widespread problems.

"We've got a regulatory working group looking at our current system, but not just the regulatory framework; at actually how our processes and practices work within that. Dame Silvia Cartwright will be chairing it, and she will be looking at one, how we receive and deal with complaints, how we support victims when they've made a complaint, and then secondly, the action that we can take within that.”

But Ms Wensley wants independent regulation of the legal profession, with harsher penalties for under reporting.

"I don't think that it's right that the Law Society that is responsible for issuing practising certificates is also the same society monitoring it. I'm sorry, there's a huge conflict there," she said.

"[Victims] can't be reporting to the society that their bread and butter comes from. I'm telling you now, that is the fear. I have been contacted by hundreds of women and men, and they cannot speak out because of their career repercussions. They are afraid."

Ms Wensley said the only way to tackle underreporting was to impose serious consequences for individuals and law firms who cover up offending.

"Hit these people in the pocket. If you hit firms and offenders in the pocket, you're going to see real change. It's a huge problem. There are so many vulnerable people - I used to be one of them - in this profession who cannot speak out.

"You get moved on very quickly if you rock the boat. Lawyers are replaceable. There's an endless supply of graduates. You can be out the door within seconds if you dare upset anything, so you have to put up and shut up."

Ministry of Justice Andrew Little recently warned the Law Society he would conduct an independent inquiry if the matter was not dealt with effectively.

Human Rights Commissioner Jackie Blue said an external inquiry would be justified: "You need someone looking from the outside in at what's happening. It's a huge issue… There could be a very real place for an independent review, and that wouldn't be a bad thing to happen."

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