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May 27, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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A Man’s World

Men: Creatures who sacrifice themselves in battle for their women and for their children; Women: Creatures who sacrifice their men’s unborn children for the sake of their own lifestyle. Peter Zohrab

Law School is well-known for its mature students – the people who are renowned for asking incessant and inane questions to lecturers. However one student has gained a special kind of profile. He’s become infamous, among law students, mainly known for his strident anti-feminism and frequent interruptions in class. When asking law school students what they know about him, the most common response was, “Peter Zohrab? He’s a cunt”. Another student replied, “Peter Zohrab? He’s a cunt. But I’ll need to know him first”. So people who don’t even know Zohrab, or have never been in a class with him, have no problem with calling him a “cunt”. Why? Who is Peter Zohrab and what has he done to deserve this most offensive of all epithets?

A law degree is pretty similar to most other degrees. There are compulsory papers that you take early on (compulsory first-year papers, criminal law, public law, contract law, tort law and property law). It’s a pretty intense process where large numbers of students make attempts and fail in getting their degrees. Many students are culled after first-year because their marks aren’t high enough. Furthermore, many more students who have made it through, drop out after failing the compulsory second-year papers. Once you’ve done the compulsory papers, there are another twelve papers (electives) to go. It takes a certain level of dedication to finish a law degree – and it’s no surprise that a high proportion of law graduates are indeed, mature students. Even after all that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a lawyer. To be able to practice law, you need to be admitted to the bar. To be admitted to the bar, you need to get a certificate from the regional (in this case, Wellington District) Law Society. A crucial factor in this, is whether you’re able to get a Certificate of Standing from the Dean of your law school. Three students in the last five years have not managed to get a Certificate of Standing from Victoria’s Dean ­– one of the them was Peter Zohrab.

I talk to Zohrab about his experience at law school and why he wants to be a lawyer. ‘Men’s Rights’ have slowly started to become an issue recently, caused by a perceived bias against men in the legal system. In Britain, the cause has become highly political with proponents pulling some rather public stunts. A couple of activists dressed up as Batman and Robin and attempted to scale Buckingham Palace. Fittingly, Batman (Jason Hatch) managed to make it, but Robin (David Pyke) did not. Pyke dressed up as Santa Claus and chained himself to Buckingham Palace a few months later. A plot to kidnap Tony Blair’s son was revealed as being organised by men’s rights activists, while another managed to handcuff himself to the children’s minister. In New Zealand, the situation hasn’t become as extreme, but men’s groups have been vociferous in their criticism of institutions such as the Family Court (the Court which decides divorce settlements, and custody rights for children). Zohrab explains, “the men’s and father’s movements have been saying it’s almost impossible to get a lawyer who will understand a man’s point of view – especially in the Family Court – but I think this applies to criminal matters too. So I decided, alright, I was going to become a lawyer.”

So Zohrab holds the view that men are disadvantaged by the legal system. So what’s the fuss? Plenty of Maori, women and queer people can justifiably believe that they’re disadvantaged, and there isn’t as much controversy. Zohrab is critical of feminism – again something you wouldn’t call controversial. He is particularly scathing of the fact, he believes, that “the Law Faculty has feminism as part of its agenda in what is really part of the professional qualification for lawyers.” He says that his attempts to exercise freedom of speech were shouted down by lecturers and students – it was essentially “a totalitarian attitude towards freedom of thought.” Zohrab also claims “I actually got assaulted by three female students. Minor assaults. And presumably because of things I said during the lecture which they didn’t like.” The aim for Zohrab was “to show, and most people didn’t know this, there actually are arguments against standard feminist arguments on all sorts of different topics. This is my point at Law School, to let students know – and staff.” Certainly a lot of the negative reaction to Zohrab often fails to take into account that Zohrab is simply exercising a fundamental right – that is, freedom of speech. He has a right to attempt to contradict established theories. Why was domestic violence teaching in the compulsory criminal law course focusing only on battered women, when a recent study by David Fergusson at Canterbury University suggests that men and women are equally likely to be physically abused?

What has caused the controversy has been the way Zohrab has expressed his views. As you can probably guess from the opening quote in this article, Zohrab’s views are expressed in fairly creative ways. Zohrab wrote an open letter to governor-general Dame Sylvia Cartwright entitled “Resign, you incompetent, sexist, racist bitch!” Zohrab has also published a book called Sex, Lies and Feminism, which is free to download. I will admit, that even me, with an extremely high tolerance for offensiveness, I found his chapter on rape and a number of his quotes questionable at best, and highly offensive at worst. I ask him what he would say to people who found his views offensive. “I don’t say anything too much, except why?” He answers, “because this is the thing, the feminists they shoot first and think afterwards. They’ll shout you down first or assault you first and they say this is because they find my views offensive. And that’s pure fascism – that’s what I call feminazism”. Having seen Zohrab shouting firsthand – the man does a solid effort himself.

Even if someone expresses some highly controversial views, does that necessarily mean he or she should be refused the chance to practice as a lawyer? There is no doubt that there are lawyers in practice who holds racist, sexist and/or homophobic views. Surely Zohrab could have kept his views to himself, at least for long enough to become admitted to the bar? Zohrab says, “I already had the impression that the Law School was going to be feminist, and I know one person who did take the approach that alright, we’ll keep our heads down, keep our nose clean, don’t argue with the feminists, get your degree and so on. That actually doesn’t work if you want to further men’s rights. If you want to further men’s rights, you’ve got to make people understand what men’s rights is about. Unless you argue it in law school, you’re never going to have a chance.”

Reputedly Zohrab made so many formal complaints, that an informal email was sent around staff advising them not to take his complaints seriously. A number of students told me that they felt threatened by his behaviour. So with all this past history, was the university justified in withholding a Certificate of Standing for Peter Zohrab? This will probably depend on what you think your limits for freedom of speech should be. It will be easy to argue that a lawyer, who’s meant to be upholding freedom of speech, should be able to argue what they like. A counter-argument could be that things have to be said in a “reasonable way”. Yet, if you think Zohrab is unable to argue things in a reasonable manner, how did he manage to get through Law School? Surely there’d have been plenty of opportunities for Zohrab to have been tripped up during exams and legal opinions? Zohrab managed to do what a lot of students have failed to do – that is, get a
law degree.

This is a difficult case. It’s a situation that invokes dread for judges in the court. The old legal maxim is hard cases, make bad law. But what if the law itself is already bad? Is the process by which a student gets a Certificate of Standing actually fair? Do students know the rules by which they get a certificate? Can students even appeal? Can the student in question find out why he or she was refused a Certificate of Standing? Is the process arbitrary? In fact, is Victoria’s Law School acting as judge, jury and executioner? If this was real-life you could say this was straight out of Kafka. Imagine you get arrested for a crime that’s not written on any rules. You never get told why you’re arrested, you can’t put your case to a court, the judge decides according to his or her own discretion, and there’s no precedent to go into. You’d say that would be contrary to all fundamental notions of public law and justice. So to try and clear this up, I decide to talk to the Dean of Law School – and one of the foremost public law scholars in New Zealand to boot – Professor Matthew Palmer.

There is no doubt that Professor Palmer is a fair-minded and reasonable man. Yet that does not necessarily make the process fair. Palmer explains the steps by which a Certificate of Standing is obtained. (It is important to note this occurs at every law school in New Zealand). “What happens when you apply for admission to the bar is that you file a number of documents to the court. Wellington District Law Society will carry out an enquiry as to character and whether someone is a fit and proper person to be a member. In the course of doing that, the Society asks the Dean of Law School in which the students study for a standard form certificate to be signed that certifies that the student is of good character and fit to be admitted.” There is no way Palmer could testify to every single law graduate’s character – he won’t know everyone. As a result, he sends an email to the staff with a list of the names of the students, allowing them to make comments. Wait a minute. Does that mean a staff member could potentially act on a grudge and thus, hinder a person’s career? “It does happen occasionally that a staff member raises a question, but I don’t consider that I’m able to act on something that isn’t substantiated. By substantiation, I look for objective facts or formal disciplinary action.” Palmer may be very thorough himself, but could a less-thorough Dean use potentially faulty evidence?

I may be overstating the influence of the Dean’s Certificate of Standing. After all, the final decision is with the Wellington District Law Society over whether they see someone as a fit and proper person. Even if they don’t, a graduate can make a submission to the High Court to get the ruling legally challenged. In fact Palmer highlights that the Certificate of Standing “is not determinative.” He emphasises, “it is still up to the Law Society to form their own view and in the very few instances where that has occurred, most cases I’m aware of, the student has been met with by the Society, given an opportunity to state their case, and then the Society comes to a view. Quite often the view is the admission should proceed.” But is a lack of certificate persuasive? Surely a Law Society won’t look too kindly on a graduate who hasn’t got one? Palmer concedes, “I suppose it would be [persuasive], but we actually don’t know because it doesn’t happen very often.”

So can students actually appeal the process? “No, not really. It’s not a formal university process, it’s not a formal disciplinary process.” That seems to suggest a student could potentially have their chances lessened simply by an informal university process. How do students know they’re being investigated? Could I perhaps, as a law student, be refused a certificate for writing this article? Palmer, to allay my fears, says he will only investigate in two major circumstances. The first is where a formal disciplinary process has already been previously taken against the student. Palmer says in that situation, a student will be made aware that this could affect their admission by the District Law Society later. The second ground would be where “there was some objective fact that establishes that there may be something to be drawn to the attention of the Society. An example of that might be material on a website.” The second point could lack certainty – how are students meant to know what content or standards of behaviour are required? Palmer says “students need to be careful that they’re not engaging in behaviour which cast doubt on their integrity because those are the sort of things which the Law Society will look on with most disfavour. So serious cases of plagiarism, the Society may look a couple of times at. Certainly in cases of theft or fraud or any criminal offense, I suspect the Society will look pretty closely at that.” It still seems to me however, to be a relatively vague definition.

The majority of the students I talked to have no idea that this process even occurs. They had no idea the Dean could potentially refuse to give the Certificate of Standing – most didn’t even know what one was. Yet it plays a pretty important role. Palmer says, “I suspect there could be more awareness actually. There is usually some mention of it in first year at various points, but students often don’t focus on this process until they get closer to the end of their degree and this process becomes higher in their mind. I mean when I went through law school I didn’t know about it, until I went through it”. I ask Zohrab if he knew of the rules, and whether they should be told to students. “Well no it wasn’t, and what’s more, they can’t. As soon as they did that, they’d be legally challenged in the courts. It’s illegal, it’s in breach of the Bill of Rights Act, the Human Rights Act for a faculty to do that. Obviously they haven’t told me why they’ve done it.” I’m not sure how it would be illegal, but Zohrab has a point. If law schools did make this process more defined, there could potentially be litigation from aggrieved students. But is that a bad thing?

I ask Palmer, is Law School acting as a judge, jury and executioner? He smiles and replies with “well what do you think on the basis of my response?” I hold my breath as I challenge one of New Zealand foremost legal thinkers – “it has the potential to violate fundamentals of public law. It does seem a Dean could be too influential and persuasive.” Palmer pauses and agrees, “it has the potential. That depends on how it’s exercised. I think it would be a brave Dean to depart from that.” That may be true, but just because a judge is not meant to depart from fundamental principles, we still have fallbacks in case they do… checks and balances if you will.

So should a student be able to challenge this whole criteria? While there are a lot of people who agree with Palmer over the Zohrab issue, does that necessarily mean Zohrab was treated fairly? Surely it would be easier for students – instead of having to trot off to the High Court to get around the Certificate of Standing/District Law Society process – to actually know exactly how this entire situation works? For something that can fundamentally alter someone’s career – someone who has gone through a publicly funded institution – perhaps, this process should be clear and open for all.

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About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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