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Where do our A-Gs stand on policing sexual harassment in law?

Following our recent reporting about the effectiveness or otherwise of professional bodies in law to police and enforce codes of conduct, we reached out to the attorneys-general of Australia for their take on the nation’s legal profession.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 17 July 2018 Politics
Australian flag, law, sexual harassment
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Questions were put to the respective attorneys-general in each state and territory, and the federal A-G, asking whether he or she felt confident that the legal bodies (such as law societies or professional complaints boards and commissioners) are effectively managing allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of misconduct in their jurisdictions, and whether confidence in the effectiveness of the newly-announced Human Rights Commission national inquiry into harassment in the workplace was warranted.

We also asked whether, hypothetically, if each attorney-general would consider launching a parliamentary inquiry into the management of and responses to allegations of sexual harassment in law, if it was deemed that the relevant professional bodies were failing in their duties.

Such a parliamentary inquiry was floated recently by New Zealand Justice Minister Andrew Little, in response to news about sexual harassment at NZ firm Russell McVeagh.

 
 

A spokesperson for ACT A-G Gordon Ramsay said that while the territory government is confident that its law society administers its functions fairly and robustly, “if it became apparent that the responses to allegations of sexual harassment in the ACT legal profession required improvement, the government would consider the most appropriate option for determining the proper way to address that hypothetical deficiency”.

“[We are] confident that the [AHRC] inquiry will deal with the effectiveness of ways in which allegations in the legal sector are dealt with and [we look] forward to seeing the outcome”.

A spokesperson for WA A-G John Quigley made a similar comment — “The A-G welcomes the inquiry into the workplace and he will consider the recommendations made in the report” — but did not respond directly to the other questions.

Queensland A-G Yvette D’Ath said her department monitors the findings of the state’s Legal Services Commission but has “no reason to doubt that the state’s legal bodies are effectively policing allegations of sexual harassment”.

Similarly, a spokesperson for NT A-G Natasha Fyles noted “there is no reason to consider that the Law Society of the NT is not meeting its duties”.

“The A-G has confidence that the Human Rights Commission [will] conduct its inquiries in accordance with the relevant terms of reference.”

Elsewhere, the attorneys-general for NSW and the federal government provided statements but did not respond directly to questioning.

“There is no excuse for harassment in the workplace, sexual or otherwise. I encourage the legal profession and its regulators to be leaders in eliminating behaviour that may in the past have been more common, but has never been acceptable,” said NSW A-G Mark Speakman.

“I don’t think the legal profession should be considered separately to other industries and professional sectors in regards to [sexual harassment],” said federal A-G Christian Porter.

“The Turnbull government has zero tolerance [for] violence against women and has invested more than $300 million into programs to improve women’s safety [and has] established the AHRC inquiry and I would urge anyone affected by such harassment to participate in that inquiry.”

Responses were not received from the attorneys-general of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria in time for publication.