// reform news by editor jason brown ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Rumours about the private affairs of a lawyer getting out of control have circulated Rarotonga for days if not weeks now. One of many scandals affecting different sectors on the island, the rumours have so far stayed out of the media. Including rumours about alleged misconduct hearings by Law Society members. Not true, says Law Society president Tim Arnold. He says no members have called for a hearing into allegations of misconduct against a lawyer. "I will be in touch on the other points raised," he says in response to written questions. avaiki nius agency has been told by several sources about a lawyer said to have been living with an underage girl. The girl is said to have laid a complaint with police over being assaulted by a man she was living with. However the complaint was withdrawn after the man's mother spoke with the girl's father. One source said the girl was living with the man with the father's blessings. ANA asked Arnold five questions, as below. 1. Did a member of the Law Society call for a hearing to discuss allegations of misconduct against a lawyer? 2. Was such a meeting scheduled? 3. What were the nature of the allegations? 4. Will the hearing be held? 5. Can you give me background on how complaints against a member of the Society are handled? 6. To your knowledge, how many complaints have been laid with the Society over the years? How many hearings? Any upheld? 7. In your opinion, what checks and balances need to be put in place within the Law Society, and the justice system as a whole, to help ensure proper performance by lawyers? "The short answer to the first question raised," replied Arnold, "is that on receiving your email I enquired of others in the Society and it appears no member of the Law Society has called for a hearing to discuss allegations of misconduct against a lawyer." Arnold's reply to misconduct allegations on 8th April 2005 came just one day after questions were sent on 7th April 2005. BACKGROUND This quick response compares with earlier queries sent to the Law Society that have gone unanswered for more than two years. Those earlier questions dealt with a partial media ban by the Registrar of Justice, Nooapii Tearea, blocking access to some records by at least one journalist. Ministry of Justice staff told ANA "the registrar" ordered them not to allow media inspection of civil claims and decisions. Tearea's media ban came against a background of continuing controversy over attempts to reform the political system. Interim executive members of the now defunct Cook Islands Media Association wrote to the Law Society, asking for their assistance in clarifying what public records should be open to the public. Law Society Secretary Brian Mason promised to respond on numerous occasions over two years but never did. Members of the Law Society are rarely examined on public performance. Or private behaviour. One lawyer was known for extremely heavy drinking. Sources said he crashed his car repeatedly, including, on one occasion, into a bus stop, just an hour or two before children were due to start going to school. By comparison, Arnold is one of the island's few independent lawyers. Arnold is not allied with a big law firm like Browne Gibson Harvey. Like them and every other lawyer on a small island he often has to contend with competing fields of interest. Arnold previously worked at Browne Gibson Harvey, known for years as "Clarke's" but resigned to form his own company. Browne Gibson Harvey was then owned by Trevor Clarke, architect of much of the country's offshore banking infrastructure. Offshore banking remains a staple of most of the country's lawyers. Mason is another Clarkes resignee, leaving to work for government, including in public relations, but now works for one of the dozen or so offshore companies. Some of these companies are suspected of being heavily involved behind-the-scenes with political parties. At the birth of the industry in 1981, laws were laid down to guard the secrecy of the offshore banking, then mostly concerned with tax haven activities, as exposed in the Winebox scandal. Anyone breaking secrecy laws could be fined tens of thousands of dollars and jailed. Discussing the affairs of foreign companies was and is still forbidden by law in the Cook Islands. In 1994, offshore bankers praised then prime minister Sir Geoffrey Henry for "extraordinary cooperation" in passing new laws to assist the industry. He is not alone. Offshore banking is one of the few areas that all members of parliament cooperate on, with all political parties repeatedly on record, in parliament, the media and their manifestos as expressing their support for the industry. Transparency ends however when it comes to passing new offshore laws. Without fail, for every new law, parliament has gone behind closed doors, or what is known as in camera, for briefings by officials from Crown Law, and, lawyers from offshore banking. In 1999, one of the first acts of the new Terepai Maoate government was to repeal an amendment by Sir Geoffrey Henry to the Electoral Act requiring political parties to declare income sources. Maoate's Democratic Party was also dogged by rumours of a $70,000 contribution from offshore banking sources to party funds. It is not clear how much of an effect - positive or negative - all this legally enforced secrecy is having on the professional standards of the legal profession. What is clear is public feeling towards lawyers. Just the year before, in 1998, surveys by the Political Review Commission found a low level of public confidence in the judiciary. Only 32% of the 281 people surveyed had confidence in the justice system as an effective control on the political system. In fact, embarassingly for everyone, only one of 10 sectors surveyed by the commission reached majority support: the news media, with 56% support. Since then, some sectors have taken a higher profile and probably increased confidence, especially audit, and perhaps police after winning the Eddie Drollet case. Some have kept a low profile, including the briefly vocal Ombudsman Andrew Turua, risking still lower levels of confidence. And lawyers as well. Over the years, journalists have received dozens if not hundreds of informal complaints about legal services in this country. Not uncommon around the world, the complaints centre on high rates and inefficient service, including alleged industry-wide conflicts of interest. Nearly all of the complaints come from landowners. "They're like the doctors. They look after each other," said one landowner. More serious allegations centre on lawyers looking after themselves. A commission of inquiry promised to name names and pursue law breakers but is dismissed by most as amounting to little. For the moment, however, attention is focused on rumours and allegations surrounding one lawyer for alleged law-breaking in private, not professional, affairs. As calls for reform spread from political parties to other sectors of society, including the media, how the Law Society reacts to problems within its own ranks will also be watched with interest. // graphic: yes to news media: results from surveys in the 1998 Political Review Commission.