Report reveals steps forward to eliminate sexual harassment from profession

By Naomi Neilson|19 April 2021
Dr Helen Szoke AO

Victorian courts and tribunals will take a major step in addressing sexual harassment in the profession with the release of a report that contained 20 recommendations into the ways that this behaviour can be eliminated in favour of a safe, healthy workplace.

Victorian Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes praised the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke for a landmark report that sets out a clear path towards eradicating the scourge of sexual harassment from the legal profession and prevent any further misconduct with expert-led advice.

“This report puts sexual harassment in Victorian courts and the harm it causes in the spotlight where it can’t be ignored any longer,” Ms Symes said, adding that she welcomes this “clear path to building a better and safer culture” while also aiming to stamp out the unacceptable behaviour across legal workplaces “for good”.

Key recommendations include amending legislation to ensure that everyone who will work in Victorian courts and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal is fully protected against sexual harassment while also exploring further legislative changes to address systemic issues of sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation.

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On a survivor-led perspective, the report has also recommended multiple ways for employees to report, adopt victim-survivor-centred responses and provide targeted and expert-led training to all court staff. This advice comes after findings that those who experience harassment have trouble speaking up due to the culture.

According to the 2019 Sexual Harassment in the Victorian Legal Sector report, around one in three legal professionals said that they have personally experienced sexual harassment at some point in their legal career. This statistic rose when respondents were presented with examples of specific behaviour or situations.

In legal workplaces, women and those with less experience – such as graduates, juniors and new lawyers – are more likely to experience sexual harassment compared with men and those with more experience respectively.

Responding to the report, Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) president Tania Wolff said that courts are not immune from sexual harassment but that the hierarchal structure has “compounded difficulty of those experiencing harassment to come forward”.

“Victims can fear jeopardising their careers if they complain. Judges, senior barristers and lawyers have a lot of power and influence over younger and less experienced members of our profession,” Ms Wolff said. “It is important that everyone who works within our courts and tribunals feel safe and respected.”

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Commenting on the report, Chief Justice of Victoria the Honourable Anne Ferguson said that to those who have come forward with their stories, she hears them: “We are already taking concrete action to implement the report’s recommendations to ensure a strong and safe culture of respect, fairness and inclusion.

“Sexual harassment is harmful, unlawful and wrong. It goes against everything that our justice system is built on. I want to make it clear that we will not put up with any form of wrongful conduct. There will be zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”

The government response is due to contribute to broader efforts to prevent and better respond to sexual harassment in all Victorian workplaces, including through already established ministerial taskforces. Dr Szoke said that urgent action on all 20 recommendations “is how we change behaviour and culture”.

Report reveals steps forward to eliminate sexual harassment from profession
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