‘This cannot be ignored’: SA legal profession responds to reports of sexual harassment and assault
The South Australian legal profession has made a further commitment to eradicating sexual harassment and shifting the culture of silence following a report that detailed many disturbing examples of misconduct, including inappropriate text messages sent by a judge and a barrister pinning a much younger clerk against his desk.
Content warning: This article contains comments that deal with themes of sexual harassment and assault.
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Acting Equal Opportunity commissioner Steph Halliday’s review revealed the extent of sexual harassment across the state’s legal profession, which included sexually suggestive comments, intrusive personal questions and, in seven cases, physical sexual assault. For South Australian and the wider Australian profession, this was nothing new.
Following the review’s release, Women Lawyers Association of South Australia (WLASA) commented: “The review confirmed what many of us already knew. Sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying are embedded in the culture of our profession and systemic drivers continue to perpetuate it.”
WLASA said it was incumbent on all members to take responsibility for meaningful cultural change, adding that the significant number of responses to the report in such a short time frame “is indicative of the widespread nature of the problem”.
“This cannot be ignored and warrants immediate action,” WLASA commented.
The report disclosed that more than 40 per cent of respondents reported having experienced some form of sexual or discriminatory harassment in the legal workplace, with a further one-third having experienced it more than once. The most common workplace was in firms, government agencies, tribunals and chambers.
One anonymous woman said she had been touched inappropriately at professional work dinners “more times than I can remember”. Another said the men in her law firm had a joke about “who could have sex on the most couches”. A woman who dodged repeated sexual advances was told by her harasser that he planned to “get me drunk and take advantage of me”. The upsetting list goes on.
Despite many women having their own stories of sexual harassment or assault, half of the respondents said they did not report out of concern that it may impact their future careers and because they did not trust current reporting mechanisms. The Law Society of South Australia agreed with the recommendation that the government needed to turn away from complaint systems and instead focus on cultural change.
“The society wholeheartedly agrees with the report that ‘no complaint mechanism will cure the problem and what is in fact required is ongoing cultural change’. We acknowledge and commend the participants in the inquiry who have bravely and openly shared their experiences to assist us all to better understand the problems faced by the profession in this area,” president Rebecca Sandford said.
In addition, the Law Society welcomed the recommendations to establish a bullying, harassment and discrimination working group, deliver numerous CPD sessions relating to sexual harassment and discrimination, and the securing of funding to deliver a tailored education program designed to inform practitioners.
“Elimination of sexual harassment will require an ongoing program of education and training designed to build a culture of respect and inclusivity in the profession, and to reinforce that there is absolutely no place for sexual harassment in the profession. This will require the legal profession to act as a whole to make a collective commitment to rejecting harassment in all of its forms,” Ms Sanford said.
The Law Society noted that a number of the 16 recommendations enhanced the obligations of law practices to reduce the risks of sexual harassment in the workplace and reiterated its statement of “no tolerance of bullying, discrimination and harassment”. The recommendations would ensure firms commit to ensuring all employees are aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace.
On reforming the complaints process, Ms Sandford also agreed with the report’s view of balancing the need to afford due process with the need to provide a safe avenue for reporting while also recognising the common problems of victims being reluctant to speak up. She said it is particularly reassuring to see a victim-centric approach.
“The problem of sexual harassment is sadly pervasive across society, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part to eliminate it,” Ms Sandford said.
“It’s critical that we seize on the momentum that has been building and work collectively to prevent workplace sexual harassment. We are optimistic and confident that the work being done at all levels, within and beyond the legal profession, is already having a positive impact on how we treat each other in the workplace.”
Mirroring this, the Australia Bar Association (ABA) president Matthew Howard SC said that this and the Victorian report reinforced the idea that sexual harassment cannot be eradicated from the profession if victims fear that they will not be heard or may face repercussions from speaking out, or that perpetrator is protected.
“Sexual harassment is illegal and unacceptable in any workplace and must not be tolerated at the bar. As the national representative body of Australia’s independent bars, the ABA recognises our responsibility to work towards a nationally consistent approach to effecting real and lasting change,” Mr Howard said.
Help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Respect on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Each law society and bar association also has further contacts available on their respective websites.
Victims wanting to reach out to Justice Kourakis and the Supreme Court with any allegations of sexual harassment and assault can contact the dedicated email address: