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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

This Time Around, Alcohol Isn’t to Blame

Dame Margaret Bazley famously transformed the NZ Police from a cover-up organisation to one with a speak up culture. She came out again with swinging fists in her recent Russell McVeagh investigation. The report has a number of sad findings and some positive recommendations. If adopted by all law firms, the infamously toxic culture in New Zealand’s legal profession would be vastly improved.
However, in several instances, the report connects inappropriate behaviour with alcohol consumption. This is bullshit. People drink alcohol all the time, and they manage to control themselves. The recommendation by Dame Margaret that the firm maintain tight control over the availability of alcohol isn’t so distant from the ideas that fuel victim-blaming. An employer should be concerned with alcohol consumption at work premises for health and safety reasons. There are laws that require responsible host policies and adequate food provisions while serving alcohol. We do not believe that Dame Margaret, while investigating the firm, became suddenly sidetracked by host responsibility rules.
The real issue, which is addressed in the report, is the inherent power imbalance. A young person entering a place they want to eventually work wants to make a good impression on their colleagues. They strive to impress the senior staff who make the hiring decisions. People in power can very easily take advantage of the willingness of young people. Saying no doesn’t always seem like the right thing to do. While you, reading this, may be thinking “I can stand up for myself,” I hope you are never in a situation where you have to find out.
The alleged harassment and assault of these young women happened at Christmas parties. There was alcohol provided (we don’t know if the host responsibility rules were adhered to, as Dame Margaret made no findings). These women knew what their bosses had done to them was wrong and went to a trusted person on their team to deal with it. Unfortunately, that person was not supported and the complaints didn’t receive the attention they deserved. Questioning the sobriety of those involved is to undermine their experience, rather than address the culprit and his actions.

Drunkenness does not excuse sexual assault. Drunkenness does not mean you’re “up for it”.
Despite the positive recommendations in the report and the resources that can be used in the future, our reading was somewhat tainted by the attribution of alcohol consumption to totally unacceptable behaviour. We think that the investigation put too much weight on factors in the firm’s culture, which could justify the behaviour of the senior lawyers at the centre of this. We eagerly await the findings of Dame Silvia Cartwright into the New Zealand Law Society’s failings on this issue. Ultimately for a culture to change it requires effort from everyone. Not just in policies, but in attitudes.
– Melissa Harward and Helen O’Connor are the presidents of the Feminist Law Society and welcome new members.


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