Family Court judge resigns amid sexual harassment investigation

08 July 2021 By Naomi Neilson
Family Court judge resigns amid sexual harassment investigation

A Family Court judge based in Parramatta has resigned after an independent investigation found that he had sexually harassed two junior female court staff.

An independent conduct committee investigation confirmed the allegations of two unwelcome hugs and inappropriate communications in 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2020 by the Parramatta judge, identified by media as Joe Harman. The findings are now part of a separate investigation to review the true extent of his misconduct. 

The Honourable Chief Justice Will Alstergren said that the “sexualised” nature of his behaviour was “totally unacceptable and inexcusable”. In addition to offering support to the two victims, he has also asked for their suggestions as to how the court could improve its judicial complaints process and the working environment. 

“The judge’s conduct is of great concern to the court as is the harm caused to these young women,” Chief Justice Alstergren said in a statement on the matter. “The court is ashamed that such conduct could occur, especially by someone of such standing and responsibility as a serving judge and in circumstances where he held a position of trust and respect to each of the complainants.” 

Advertisement
Advertisement

The first complaint was received in July 2020 by a former law student and, having found that they warranted further investigation, Chief Justice Alstergren asked three Supreme Court of Victoria judges to review. The Honourable Julie Dodds-Streeton QC, the Honourable David Habersberger QC and the Honourable Katharine Williams QC then broadened their investigation to include the second complaint received in September 2020.

Judge Harman has been on leave since the commencement of the investigation in August 2020, with his duties and responsibilities allocated to other judges and court registrars. Judge Harman and the two complainants were offered legal representation of their choice, counselling and other support during this process. 

“I have personally met with each of the complainants, and, on behalf of the court, I have apologised, unreservedly, to them for the judge’s conduct. I have also acknowledged in writing the significant impact the judge’s conduct has had on them. They should never have been subjected to this behaviour,” Chief Justice Alstergren said. “I have thanked them for their courage and fortitude in coming forward.”

Mr Harman sought to explain away his misconduct with a medical condition and his workload, but the committee found this could not justify his behaviour. When the committee handed down its report in April 2021 with a recommendation to refer the matter to the Attorney-General, Mr Harman filed further evidence on his condition. 

The conduct committee was then required to consider the additional behaviour but, on 17 June 2021, confirmed that it would not be altering its findings. On 30 June, a day before the Chief Justice delivered his determination to the complainants and Mr Harman, the former judge resigned, effective Thursday, 8 July. 

PROMOTED CONTENT

Mr Harman has been the source of controversy on several occasions in the past, one of which occurred after he refused to disqualify himself from a case involving a female lawyer he had an affair with. The affair led to a breakdown of their professional relationship, which included Mr Harman emailing other lawyers to denigrate the woman the year before he was appointed to the bench. 

Chief Justice Alstegren’s announcement comes a year after the High Court found that former justice Dyson Heydon had sexually harassed six young women as they worked as judge’s associates, including immediate past president of the Australian Law Association (ALA) and now senior solicitor Noor Blumer. 

It also comes several days after the South Australian Chief Justice the Honourable Chris Kourakis named magistrate Simon Milazzo as the judicial officer at the centre of an investigation into accusations of misconduct by five women. 

Chief Justice appoints workplace lawyer for further investigation

As part of the committee’s report, it recommended that the Chief Justice take steps to ascertain whether any other people may have been the subject of the misconduct. As part of this, the court has engaged Corrs Chambers Westgarth workplace specialist lawyer Stephen Price to undertake this investigation. 

The results of this investigation will be considered when received and, if appropriate, will be referred back to the conduct committee for its consideration and any further recommendations. An additional report will also be provided to the Attorney-General.

In the meantime, Chief Justice Alstergren said the court would take any steps necessary to ensure that the experiences of the complainants will not be repeated. 

“Harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. The court is committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all of its employees and maintaining a zero policy to any misconduct of its judicial officers,” Mr Alstergren commented. 

“The court encourages anyone who has been subjected to inappropriate behaviour to come forward and make a complaint. They will be fully supported. The court will continue to do all it can to ensure that inappropriate conduct does not occur.”

Help is available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Respect on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). Each law society and bar association also has further contacts available on their respective websites

Family Court judge resigns amid sexual harassment investigation
Intro image
lawyersweekly logo