Lawmakers establish protocols around sexual harassment complaints
Legal bodies at both state and federal levels are establishing committees headed by eminent jurists to review ways in which complaints of sexual harassment can and must be dealt with within the legal profession.
The demand for these reviews of behavioural practices by judges, lawyers and barristers has followed the allegations from senior legal figures of predatory behaviour by Dyson Heydon, a now retired judge of the High Court of Australia. Women who were the victims of Heydon’s predatory behaviour believed he was a ‘protected species’ due to his status as one of the most powerful men in the legal profession.
Research by the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner have found that one in three lawyers have experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.
That number is concerning to anyone familiar with the legal system.
A review into Victoria’s six jurisdictions is to be led by Dr. Helen Szoke who is also a member of the Judicial Commission. Her role will be to identify ways to build a culture to ‘call out’ sexual harassment across all six jurisdictions.
Another review, this time under the leadership of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Anne Ferguson, will consider ways to improve reporting and support victims, and ensure accountability in legal workplaces.
The loss of highly lucrative government contracts will be the price legal firms will pay if they fall short of government standards and fail the internal audits. These firms will be expected to establish processes to deal with sexual harassment claims.
As Justice Ferguson stated clearly, ‘Improper and unethical conduct will not be tolerated under any circumstances.’.
John Bornstein from the legal firm Maurice Blackburn has suggested there may be a need for an independent body to deal with complaints.
There are female heads of jurisdiction at VCAT, the supreme, magistrates and children’s courts in Victoria, and 50% female representation at the Magistrates Court. That gives hope that attitudes will and must change among the legal fraternity.
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Ref: David Estcourt, The Age
– Annie Young