Complaints against SA magistrate examined

·2-min read

Complaints by five women against a serving magistrate in South Australia should be examined by a special panel appointed by the attorney-general, a judicial watchdog says.

Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone QC said she had concluded her own preliminary examination and had recommended the appointment of a judicial conduct panel to inquire into and report on the complaints.

The complaints span around seven years and concern incidents involving five women who worked in various capacities at the courts, she said in a statement on Thursday.

The magistrate denies any impropriety.

A judicial conduct panel has not previously been appointed in SA.

It will have the powers of a royal commission and comprise two judicial officers and a lay person who will report to Attorney-General Vickie Chapman.

"Such a report would include the panel's opinion as to whether removal of a judicial officer were justified," Commissioner Vanstone said.

She said her recommendation to appoint a panel did not involve her making factual findings about whether the alleged incidents occurred, or the circumstances of them, "except to the extent necessary to inform my recommendation".

Her recommendation follows a report in April by Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Steph Halliday that found discrimination and sexual harassment were widespread in the legal profession.

Ms Halliday took more than 600 survey responses and other submissions with 42 per cent saying they had been victims of sexual or discriminatory harassment, and 69 per cent of those opting not to report the incidents mostly for fear of damaging their careers.

The unwanted behaviour ranged from suggestive comments or jokes to touching, hugging and kissing and even pressure for sex.

Among the experiences shared by the review's participants, one involved repeated lewd, inappropriate, and harassing remarks made by a magistrate, and another involved a sexual assault by a former judge.

The report also related the experience of a lawyer who was sent lewd text messages by a magistrate while a court case was in progress.

Ms Halliday called for legislation changes to put more onus on employers to prevent and stop harassment and for better training for both lawyers and judicial officers.