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Sex Harassment ‘Open Secret’ In Australian State Courts

A review has called for an overhaul of how the “open secret” of sexual harassment is dealt with in Victoria’s courts system.

MELBOURNE, Australia — An inquiry into the “open secret” of sexual harassment in Australian state Victoria’s courts system says legal and cultural changes are needed to better protect lawyers from predatory behavior.

The Victorian review was sparked by a separate independent inquiry that found former High Court justice Dyson Heydon harassed six associates while he worked there. Heydon denied the accusations.

Former Victorian human rights commissioner Helen Szoke‘s review released on April 19 found sexual harassment was an “open secret” in the broader legal profession and courts.

It was frequently experienced and perpetrated by barristers, with young women particularly at risk and there were significant barriers to reporting it.

“Sexual harassment in our courts has to stop. It causes great harm to victim-survivors, and to the community’s confidence in the system,” Szoke said.

She made 20 recommendations aimed at better protecting lawyers and court staff in Victoria.

They include explicitly requiring appointee magistrates and judges to be of good character and to have treated colleagues and clients with respect.

The character and prior conduct of Senior Counsel would also be looked at more closely under the recommendations.

Szoke called on the government to consider giving Victoria’s Judicial Commission power to compel documents and information when dealing with complaints.

Szoke’s recommendations include explicitly requiring appointee magistrates and judges to be of good character and to have treated colleagues and clients with respect. (James Ross/AAP Image)

The Judicial Commission of Victoria welcomed the release of the findings of the Review of Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts.

The governing body of the Commission is the Board of the Judicial Commission of Victoria. The Board consists of six judicial Board members and four Board members appointed by the Governor in Council.

Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act should also be changed to ensure those working within the courts are protected from sexual harassment and prohibited from sexually harassing others, the review said.

Victoria has had an Equal Opportunity Act since 1977. The current Act is the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. The legislation protects people from discrimination on the basis of their individual attributes in certain areas of public life and provides redress for people who have been discriminated against. The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 came into force on Aug. 1, 2011, and replaced the Equal Opportunity Act 1995.

Szoke’s other recommendations include training for all court staff about sexual harassment and gender inequality and a separate and independent education program for new judicial appointees.

Annual anonymous surveys should be used to track progress on dealing with and reporting sexual harassment in the courts, as per the review.

It also called for an independent audit within two years to track the progress of implementing these review recommendations.

(Edited by Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar and Ritaban Misra)