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Judge suggests young lawyers unionise in face of ‘poor treatment’

Western Australia’s newest District Court judge has called out the bullying, sexual harassment, unreasonable work hours and expectations placed on the youngest members of the profession, and floated collective bargaining or unionising as a solution to such scourges.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 28 February 2023 The Bar
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Last Wednesday (22 February), at a special sitting to welcome His Honour Judge Mark Ritter SC to the WA District Court, Judge Ritter — who was appointed to the court earlier this year — called out various issues that plague the legal profession.

One thing that has caused His Honour “great consternation”, Ritter J mused during the court’s special sitting, is the stories he has “regularly heard” of the “poor treatment” that young legal professionals face at law firms.

In particular, His Honour pointed to the treatment of women in law.


“Examples of bullying, sexual harassment, unreasonable work hours and expectations from or condoned in one way or another by partners and principals are matters of great concern to the profession, and something should be done about it,” Ritter J submitted.

“As a parting shot as a former barrister to young lawyers in the profession and noticing, in particular, some of the people at the bar table, I think that the way to move some of these issues forward might be collective bargaining for working conditions and maybe even a union to involve in work practices that are not up to standard.”

“In other workplaces, when some of the things that I have mentioned occur, somebody has the capacity to call the union and somebody will appear at the worksite and help address things,” His Honour continued.

“The law is perhaps the only profession where that is not possible.”

The idea that lawyers should unionise is, of course, not new.

In 2020, the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union was formed in New Zealand on the back of widespread concern about bullying, sexual harassment, low wages and a lack of overtime — the very issues that Ritter J has alluded to.

In 2019, the-then national legal counsel of the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, Alana Heffernan, spoke on The Lawyers Weekly Show about whether Australian lawyers should unionise, the benefits of doing so, and what such unionisation could look like for in-house lawyers.

There are also, as Bowd chief executive Fionn Bowd explained on a recent episode of Legal Lightbulbs, lessons pertaining to unionisation that lawyers can learn from tradies.

Ritter J also spoke, during the special sitting, about the role of the bench in ensuring optimal wellness for all those with whom the justice system and legal profession come into contact.

Concluding his welcome speech with a reference to the special sitting for District Court Chief Judge Julie Wager back in 2005, His Honour alluded to Wager CJ’s belief in the notion of “therapeutic justice”.

“Her Honour said that this involved an acknowledgement that all legal processes, including court processes, have an impact on the wellbeing of all participants,” Ritter J explained.

“As Her Honour explained, this includes victims, the accused, the parties in civil cases, jurors, counsel and court staff.”

“In this, I believe that judges have a key role in trying to minimise the degree of negativity that a court experience can bring to people who interact with it, whether it be those that interact daily and others perhaps only once in their lives,” Ritter J posited.

“I think, as the Chief Judge then indicated, this can best be achieved by humility, respect, courteousness, being well prepared, and openly communicating with people, and I’ll have to see if I can at least achieve some of those.”

Elsewhere, Ritter J paid tribute to his late wife, Deborah Milton, a lawyer who passed away late last year.

“Deborah was my best friend, my confidante, my lover, my thinking buddy, my financial supporter, sometimes my fierce combatant, sometimes my comedic straight man or, more correctly, straight woman, my educator, a legal colleague, a number one cook, after mum, and perhaps, most importantly of all, the mother of our children Grace, Michael and Luka,” His Honour remarked.

“Deborah excelled in all of those roles. She supported me unfailingly throughout my career whilst maintaining her own career. Without Deborah’s contribution, I find it impossible to believe that I would be here.”

Speaking about Ritter J’s appointment earlier this year, WA Attorney-General John Quigley said that His Honour “has made significant contributions to education and mentoring in the legal field”.

Ritter J was appointed senior counsel in 2004 and formerly served as acting president of the WA Industrial Relations Commission prior to his most recent position as a barrister at Francis Burt Chambers. His Honour was admitted to practice in Western Australia in December 1985 and was a partner at Dwyer Durack before leaving for the bar in 1995.