A Harvey Weinstein whistleblower has said that nothing has changed in the years since she highlighted the issue of non-disclosure agreements being used to silence victims.
Zelda Perkins, a former assistant of Weinstein who was sexually harassed by the disgraced film producer, has campaigned in recent years since the scandal broke to stop lawyers coercing clients and victims into signing NDAs.
Speaking yesterday during a wide-ranging panel discussion on solicitor ethics, Perkins said little had changed despite the SRA’s attempts to take action in this area. ‘The reality is there has been no change,’ she told the Legal Services Board conference. ‘No regulatory change and no legislative change.
‘The SRA has tried to put out warning notices but as far as I am concerned a warning notice is a conversation, but in another few weeks, months or years that notice has been ignored. The guidance [to solicitors] when I signed the NDA in 1998 is the same as today.’
Perkins said the actions of those representing all parties were as big an issue as Weinstein’s behaviour, and the problem for her ‘started the moment I was in a room with a lawyer’.
‘I thought I was going to be somewhere to get help and I was disavowed of that almost immediately. The advice I was given was driven by the fact that regulation and legislation doesn’t support the legal profession to make ethically strong decisions.’
Perkins said the response of regulators to her complaints of wrongdoing also highlighted why many victims might be unwilling to come forward.
‘I went through a very extreme complaint process – it was rigorous and very hard,’ she said. ‘I was 25 years from the incidents and [I went] through what was essentially a private court case of four days [with investigators]. Not very many people are going to want to go through that process.’
The conference heard that private and in-house lawyers have faced criticism over a number of ethical issues in recent years, including the use of NDAs to silence whistleblowers, the Post Office Horizon scandal, and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which critics argue supress free speech and restrict access to justice.
Robert Barrington, former head of Transparency International in the UK and now professor of anti-corruption practice at Sussex University, said it had been ‘extremely hard’ for the legal profession to accept there was a problem.
‘Currently, the legal profession is drawing the ethical boundaries in the wrong place, in that more or less anything goes,’ he said. ‘That diminishes the profession, which society needs to be in good standing at a time when the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law are being challenged by politicians.’
Speaking from the audience, Law Society president Lubna Shuja, said public opinion was changing and the profession needed to have an ‘ethical debate’ about what was acceptable practice.
But she added: ‘I don’t accept at all that lawyers don’t care or that they ignore the public interest. Lawyers are regulated and the majority of them do their best to act ethically. I want to open a debate about ethics as I accept this is an area that is not clear.’
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