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Recent sex harassment case ‘sets a precedent for exemplary damages’ in law firms
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Recent sex harassment case ‘sets a precedent for exemplary damages’ in law firms

The decision by the Federal Circuit Court to award $170,000 to the former employee of a boutique firm for “relentless” sexual harassment offers lessons for employers as well as proffering hope for women across the profession, argues one lawyer.

In late May, the Federal Circuit Court ordered Owen Hughes, the principal of Bangalow-based boutique firm Beesley and Hughes, to pay a cumulative $170,000 in damages to his former employee, Catherine Hill, for what it described as “a very grave example” of sexual harassment.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Travis Schultz Law principal Travis Schultz said the judgment sets a precedent insofar as an award for exemplary damages is concerned, with the court’s ordering $50,000 because of the conduct of Mr Hughes in trying to discourage Ms Hill, in her capacity as a plaintiff, from making a complaint about him.

This award from the court, he said, “should send a warning to anyone who may have ‘crossed the line’”.

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“It shows that not only is it important to ensure that conduct of this type is prevented, but if it is discovered or admitted, that subsequent actions and response are appropriate and do not seek to coerce the victim into refraining from exercising any rights they may have,” Mr Schultz said.

There are lessons for law firms from this judgment, he continued.

“Law firm employers and indeed any employer in general need to accept that objectivity is required in considering their conduct and that of staff. It doesn’t matter what you subjectively thought your intentions were by acting in a particular way, but rather, what, viewed objectively, that conduct was likely to be seen as from the eyes of the victim and an objective bystander,” he explained.

“Employers need to be alert to the fact that, viewed through another lens, conduct or actions can be viewed very differently, and if that occurs in the context of sexual harassment, substantial liability incurred.”

The judgment should also, he noted, provide some level of reassurance to women (and, in some cases, men) who have suffered from such harassment or misconduct in legal workplaces.

“This case should give hope to men and women who have been sexually harassed or ‘pursued’ by a superior or employer that they do have a voice and that they do have access to redress,” Mr Schultz said.

“They can feel comfortable that their concerns will be taken seriously and that in the context of an inequal relationship, any sexual harassment will not be condoned.”

And looking more broadly across the Australian legal profession, the case highlights the risk in partners or practitioners in senior roles pursuing those who are their subordinates for a relationship which is more than platonic, he asserted.

“The inequality in their positions in the organisation significantly amplifies the risk of what may have been intended to be a relatively innocent pursuit of romantic goals. As was found in Hill v Hughes, it can amount to harassment that breaches the Sex Discrimination Act,” Mr Schultz concluded.

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