Inquiry into sexual harassment in the legal profession ‘unnecessary’, SA Law Society says
The government-led investigation into sexual harassment in the profession will prevent progress in South Australia and only serves as an “unnecessary”, replicated procedure already conducted by many of the state and national professional legal bodies.
The South Australian government has thrown its support behind a motion for the Equal Opportunity Commission or another independent body to examine the extent of sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession, but while the move may be welcomed by some, the Law Society of South Australia warned that it would only prevent any crucial progress.
The Law Society said it is concerned that the motion will not effectively achieve any of its desired outcomes as it does not take into account the “significant work” by the legal bodies in the state and across national levels. President Tim White said the motion will likely delay the progress and implementation of measures currently well underway.
“The Law Society does not support the inquiry as it is concerned it will not only overlap with and duplicate existing and previous work but it is also likely to delay the significant measures currently well underway,” Mr Game said, adding that the inquiry funding will be better spent on the $98,000 the Law Society identified was needed for training.
The government has asked the inquiry to examine whether an independent complaints body is needed for lawyers or members of the judiciary to lodge anonymous concerns, complaints and seek advice about other legal practitioners. However, procedures have already been put in place at a federal level to examine the effectiveness of the bodies.
The government inquiry has also asked that the independent body examine frequency and prevalence of the behaviour with new research, despite many studies already – and recently – carried out by the Law Society and other major professional legal bodies.
Consistent with the International Bar Association’s (IBA) research, the South Australian Law Society confirmed that 61.4 per cent of Australian respondents were victims of bullying at work, while 29.6 per cent of lawyers were victims of workplace sexual harassment. The Law Society put together a working group to respond to these figures and deliver results.
SA-BEST MLC Connie Bonaros, a former lawyer, lodged the motion in the upper house, spurring the response from Mr Game. Ms Bonaros told South Australia Parliament that of all sectors it is “abundantly clear” that the legal profession is not equipped to handle these issues.
“It is very much my view the judiciary, the legal profession and each and every member in this place, that is, our lawmakers, those people who are armed with interpreting our laws, should know better. It is abundantly clear in many instances they do not,” added Ms Bonaros, leaving out that many legal bodies have already started to address this.
The Law Society is currently carrying out its own measures for addressing harassment in the profession, including collaborating at state, national and international levels, and consulting the profession to put together recommendations. It has also adopted many recommendations from the Human Rights Commissions’ Respect at Work report.
The Law Society has also started work with the South Australian Bar Association, each of the law school deans, Women Lawyers Association of South Australia, the Women at the Bar and Australian Association of Women Judges to craft measures to address, respond and eradicate inappropriate behaviour by implementing CPD and compulsory training for all lawyers, creating a complaints process and a grassroots programs.
“The adequacy of existing laws, policies and complaints mechanisms relating to sexual harassment are already being examined and a number of recommendations have also been adopted and work is well underway to improve how these measures will be better utilised to address sexual harassment in the legal profession,” Mr Game said.
“Therefore, the Society considers that terms of reference of the proposed inquiry to be unnecessary, or quite simply superseded, in light of work that has already been done.”
An independent review has been established to address how our Victorian courts can better support people who experience sexual harassment. If you have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, the review is keen to hear from you.