Profession to address the problem of sexual harassment in law

By Naomi Neilson|24 June 2020
sexual harassment in law

Following the findings of sexual harassment at Australia’s highest court, the rest of the country has committed to implementing the recommendations for policies and training to address a profession that “needs to step up to protect lawyers”.

Soon after Chief Justice Susan Kiefel AC confirmed an independent inquiry had found former Justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six women, the profession expressed the same shame and disappointment that the conduct went unreported for so long. 

In response to the recommendations set out by the High Court, each law institute and Supreme Court has committed to reviewing its policies around sexual harassment and bullying. In NSW, Chief Justice Tom Bathurst AC advised that new policies will ensure all judges and their staff understand what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. 

“The Supreme Court has been in the process for a number of months of developing an internal bespoke policy for judges and judicial staff working in judges’ chambers,” said CJ Bathurst. “It is anticipated the policy will be finalised by the end of the week.”

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CJ Bathurst said the policy will follow recommendations set out by the High Court. He also confirmed that since his appointment in 2011, he has not received or been made aware of claims or complaints of sexual harassment in the Supreme Court. 

The state’s Law Society added it believes that one of the fundamental rights for anyone working in the profession is that they can be in a workplace environment that is always free from harassment, noting that “everyone has a right to a safe place of work”. 

In the ACT, the Supreme Court said it had policies and procedures in place to address the matters raised in the recommendations and is reviewing current policies. Its Law Society said it is “alarmed and disappointed” at the findings and expressed its empathy for the women, including its former president Noor Blumer. 

In Queensland, if an associate had concerns that they feel they cannot raise with their judge, they can approach the three designated judges, including the Chief Justice. In South Australia, the court requires that an executive assistant is notified of events that involve consumption of alcohol and in Western Australia, the Chief Justice has tabled six recommendations to undergo considerations by the Supreme Court. 

Victoria Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she worked with the judicial college to develop a standalone education program on harassment, bullying, conduct by judicial officers and advanced court leadership, soon to be rolled out. 

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If the profession is going to protect lawyers in the future, Law Institute of Victoria noted that it must step up to address the law’s problem with sexual harassment. Its president Sam Pandya said it was unacceptable that any practitioner felt the need to leave the profession due to their experiences with sexual harassment. 

“No one should feel empowered by seniority and power imbalance to harass staff. We must stand together as a profession with zero tolerance for harassment to educate the profession and support vulnerable employees with avenues to address complaints,” he said.

Profession to address the problem of sexual harassment in law
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