Sexual harassment – a commitment by the High Court to walk the talk

Sexual harassment – a commitment by the High Court to walk the talk

On 26 June 2020, Chief Justice Allsop of the High Court of Australia, together with other heads of jurisdiction of federal courts and tribunals, issued a statement condemning sexual harassment in any workplace and noting that “any form of sexual harassment by a judicial officer is not only reprehensible, but a breach of the public trust”.

The statement was issued in response to the finding of a recent independent inquiry by the Court into allegations against former Justice Dyson Heydon which found that he had, whilst a Justice of the High Court, sexually harassed six young female associates over a lengthy period of time.  Since inquiry, many other women in the legal profession, including a current judge and a former President of the ACT Law Society, have also publicly disclosed they had also been targets of unwanted sexual harassment and, in at least one case, indecent assault, by Mr Heydon.

In the statement, Chief Justice Allsop and other heads of federal courts and tribunals stated that they are committed to ensuring a safe working environment for all staff, a commitment that requires them to ensure that all of their staff are not subjected to any form of sexual harassment.  As part of that commitment, all federal courts and tribunals will review their existing sexual harassment policies and procedures and will ensure that they are effectively and clearly understood by all staff.  They further stated that all staff should have the confidence to raise concerns or complaints and that they will be properly addressed. 

In a further statement on 6 July 2020, Chief Justice Allsop said that the review includes a review of all existing policies and procedures, including induction programs, a staff survey, meetings of staff and associates, the engagement of external consultants to assist with staff meetings and information sessions and a judicial advisory committee.

The swift and through response of the High Court and other federal courts and tribunals underlines the seriousness of sexual harassment in the workplace and recognises the impact it can have on the careers of (typically) younger workers who often feel unable to make a complaint for fear of that impacting on their future career or employment.

This is also a timely reminder for all employers to ensure that they have adequate policies and procedures in place to both prevent and deal with sexual harassment and to ensure that staff are adequately inducted into and trained in relation to them.  Although a failure to have such a policy may result in financial consequences for a business (be that compensation or penalties for breaching OHS laws), the less quantifiable impacts of poor staff retention, poor staff morale, loss in productivity, increased absenteeism and reputational risks will often be far greater.

WR Law is able to provide employers with a suite of policies, including in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Melissa Fitzpatrick
08/07/2020

This article has been prepared by marketing at WR Law. The information provided should not be relied upon as legal advice. You should speak with Rosa Raco directly about your specific circumstances via email rraco@wrlaw.com.au or phone 03 54996131.