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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Right to presumption of innocence and legal (and PR) representation is fundamental

I cannot help but be amused by the furore surrounding MinterEllison’s CEO Annette Kimmit’s apology to the law firm’s staff for the “pain [they] may be experiencing” over news that Peter Bartlett, a partner at the firm, had accepted Attorney-General Christian Porter as a client following the recent rape allegation against Porter. On Tuesday, Kimmit mutually agreed with Minters’ board to leave the firm as a result. Before jumping to conclusions about my amusement about all this, hear me out.

First, let me be clear; I am not making light of the allegation against the Attorney-General, or of the rights of the victim and other victims of rape, or of the need for a proper judicial inquiry into the matter. Rape is a very serious matter – indeed, one of the most heinous crimes that can be perpetrated by one human being against another. Rape is vile because it disrespects the dignity of the person who is its victim. All allegations of rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment should be taken with the utmost seriousness and be fully investigated and, where there is cause, prosecuted with the full force of the law.

What amuses me about the Minter’s situation is that the expectation by many in our society that the #MeToo zeitgeist should trump the very basis of our legal system. It is particularly amusing that because of the trend, the CEO of a law firm seems to have totally disregarded the right of the accused to the presumption of innocence and to legal representation. To be fair, Kimmit is not a lawyer. She is an accountant who had built her career in that field and management consultancy at a big four firm prior to taking on the role of CEO of the tier one legal firm. Nonetheless, she should have at least understood these two basic tenets of Australia’s legal system (not to mention that the presumption of innocence is also an international human right under the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights). Perhaps Minters could impose a “Basic Understanding of Australian Law” test when interviewing for Kimmit’s replacement? Or, just appoint a lawyer to the role next time.

The other thing that amuses me about the Kimmit situation is that it is not altogether surprising given Kimmit’s career history. Many firms in the consulting world have started to pick and choose clients based on subjective “corporate values” established to align with the latest social zeitgeist or trend and the subjective views of elements of their own workforces. These firms have totally rejected the view that those sectors or clients they refuse to work with should have a right to a presumption of innocence let alone to representation and advice. (In fact, little consideration is given to the fact that the advice you give might lead the client or sector concerned to change its behaviour or practices for the better, but that’s a matter for another discussion.) And what of the views of those segments of society and of their workforces that happen to support those blacklisted industries? Are their views not valid because they are part of a minority?

This trend to blacklist certain industries and clients in the consultancy world is one of the reasons I established my own corporate, government and public affairs firm last year. Having spent much of my career in senior roles in leading international PR firms in China and Australia I was getting tired of the (latest and changeable) corporate values that blacklisted certain industries, which I felt had legitimate views that they should be able to promote in the interests of a full and reasoned debate around important social, economic and political matters. These included industries involved in vaping, timber, guns, coal, and oil, to name a few. Concerns also were raised about the reputational damage that could be caused to my employers by my association with certain clients, such as those in my litigation communications work, like clients before the courts or judicial inquiries for fraud or malfeasance, or for workplace injuries and deaths. Never mind that the clients might have been innocent; in the corporation’s view we shouldn’t provide communications advocacy for those clients in the court of public opinion.

As one of my colleagues would put it when we’d have arguments with management about our “bad” clients, “If we wait for Snow White to grace our doors, we’ll be waiting a long time.” The simple truth was that we, the government and public affairs team, used to work issues and crisis management. The clients who walked through our doors did so because they needed communications assistance in the direst of circumstances. We worked on workplace injuries and deaths, consumer product issues, allegations of fraud and malfeasance, environmental damage, etc. My view has always been that such clients are fully entitled to a presumption of innocence and the best legal and PR advocacy available to them. And, so, yes, I would have worked for the Wicked Witch on the poisoned apple case brought by Snow White. Even the Wicked Witch is entitled to the presumption of innocence and vigorous representation of her case – though I would have argued for a change of nomenclature to improve her image in the court of public opinion.

As for those unpopular industries I mentioned above, they are also entitled to the best legal and PR representations available. I make no apologies for working for them. They had every right to quality PR services.

Fair enough if the owners of the big consultancy and PR firms don’t want to work for certain industries or clients. It is their right as the owners of those firms to choose their clients based on their value systems.

The true joy for me of running my own consultancy is that I too can choose who I am happy to work for – and who I won’t work for. Are there clients or sectors I would not work for? Yes, of course, there are. I let clients know when they call me if they don’t mesh with my personal value system. (It is worth noting that during a career spanning more than 35 years, I have only refused to work with one sector and only a handful of clients over ethical issues.)

If you have an issue that you feel deserves a fair chance with the best communications support, feel free to call. Your right to the presumption of innocence and to vigorous representation is fundamental. As objectivist philosopher and writer, Ayn Rand, said,

“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”


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