A senior lawyer is before the courts after being accused of “groping” a woman’s backside inside a busy courtroom where they both work.
The man, in his 50s, pleaded not guilty to a charge of indecent assault.
The case – described by another witness as “bizarre” – played out in a two-day trial this week.
The lawyer, who is a partner in a law firm, has interim name suppression which means some aspects of the evidence, such as the location and names of other witnesses, cannot be reported without potentially identifying him or the complainant.
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He adamantly denies deliberately grabbing or touching the woman’s buttocks in the courtroom, but accepts his hand could have accidentally hit her walking past in the crowded space.
The woman, who works for the Justice Ministry, was leaning over to talk to someone seated in the public gallery of the court when she felt a “strong grip on my butt” on November 7 last year.
“It was a real tight squeeze … I was really shocked,” the woman said in court.
“I quickly flung my head around to see who could have done that to me. I was shocked to see who I was looking at.”
She identified the lawyer, who was walking away towards the doors at the back of the court with his client.
The woman said she was “shaken” and did not want to confront him without evidence, so carried on working.
Later that day, she told a member of court security staff “something happened” to her and they viewed the footage from the cameras inside the courtroom.
The CCTV recording is not a continuous video but a series of still images taken at about one-second intervals.
The seven-second clip was played at the trial this week and shows the woman turning sharply soon after the lawyer, and his client, walk past.
The woman tried unsuccessfully to download the CCTV footage each day, but did not tell her supervisor until an unexpected witness came forward six days later.
Another lawyer had been sitting in the public gallery of the courtroom on the day of the alleged indecent assault.
The lawyer, an experienced civil and criminal litigator, gave evidence at the trial this week.
He said he saw the other lawyer walking towards him and deliberately reach out to “strike” the woman’s bottom, then take his hand away.
The physical contact was less than a second and did not seem to be an accidental brushing, the lawyer said in court.
“I recall her looking surprised and looking around,” said the lawyer. “[The defendant] walked by as if nothing unusual had happened, nonchalantly.”
The witness said the “bizarre” incident made him uncomfortable but he wasn’t sure what to do.
He even wondered whether there was a relationship between the other lawyer and the woman he was unaware of.
“I didn’t want to be causing trouble … even if something inappropriate did happen, some people don’t want to do anything.”
But speaking to a female colleague later confirmed the lawyer’s intuition he could offer his support.
“The following week I returned to the courtroom and approached her. I said I thought I saw something improper … she got emotional and said it was a cup, rather than a slap.”
The woman then notified her supervisor at the Justice Ministry, before a formal complaint was laid with police.
She was cross-examined about why it took so long for her to make the complaint by defence lawyer David Niven, as well as her changing description of the physical contact.
“If you saw that happen to someone else, you would have intervened. The fact you didn’t do anything, indicates you weren’t sure it happened?” Niven said.
This was rejected by the complainant who said: “I know how this industry works, I wanted evidence.”
Niven suggested the woman was not sure of what happened to her, even after watching the security footage, until the other lawyer approached her.
Only then was she convinced the physical contact was deliberate, not accidental, which Niven suggested had made her memory unreliable.
This was also denied by the complainant who said: “I didn’t want it swept under the carpet. Now I had a witness.”
Niven also pointed out the complainant said “something happened” when she first spoke to court security about the CCTV, then “thought she felt something” when speaking to the lawyer who offered his support.
This changed to “grab” when she gave her official statement to police, said Niven, then “grope” while she gave evidence in the trial this week.
“Grab is a nicer word than grope. I was being nice,” replied the woman.
“I’m very sure what happened. It wasn’t a touch, an accidental bump, a brush. It was a grab, a grope.
“Accidents happen. This wasn’t an accident.”
It was an accident, according to the lawyer who became emotional on several occasions while giving evidence in his own defence.
He adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to touch the woman inappropriately, but conceded his hands could have struck her accidentally as he walked past in the crowded courtroom.
The lawyer, who is married with teenage daughters, initially thought it was a Christmas joke when the local Detective Sergeant charged him with indecent assault.
He had no recollection of what happened.
“I was absolutely bewildered and upset at the seriousness of the allegation.
“I wouldn’t deliberately touch any woman or man . . .. My reputation, my career, employment of staff, I wouldn’t risk it . . .I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t do something like this and effectively end my career.”
The lawyer said he had never been accused of any sexual or inappropriate behaviour which was corroborated by other witnesses at the trial, including female lawyers, the local principal and police prosecutor.
If he had never been accused of inappropriate behaviour anywhere, including while drinking at social occasions, the lawyer questioned why he would do so publicly in a busy courtroom.
“The judge, police, colleagues, the public … If I was to touch [the complainant], I’d expect words to be said … an uproar.”
Under cross-examination from the Crown, the lawyer denied “squeezing” the woman’s behind.
“I’m prepared to accept I struck her. A hand has been swung, I’ve been too vigorous in a tight area.
“I was not out to grab or grope anyone in court. I love the law. I’ve gone in and out of court thousands of times.
“I did not choose that day or the complainant to put it at risk … I’m sad and upset I’m in this situation and here today.”
Judge Tony Snell reserved his decision on the defendant’s guilt or innocence but indicated his ruling could be released by the end of the month.