Sex harassment 'open secret' in Vic courts

·3-min read

Sexual harassment is an "open secret" in Victoria's legal profession, with a review calling for sweeping changes to help stamp out predatory behaviour.

Former Victorian human rights commissioner Helen Szoke has made 20 recommendations to better prevent sexual harassment in the courts.

"Many women and some men told me their stories of the 'open secret' of sexual harassment," Dr Szoke said in the report released on Monday.

"Women also spoke of everyday sexism and a culture that often sees women and junior staff as 'less than'.

"Sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about their private life, and unwelcome comments on their physical appearance were accepted as part of the job."

The review said the hierarchy and power imbalances of the courts made sexual harassment difficult to prevent.

When people did say they had been sexual harassed, the response was deficient on a systematic level.

"When it first happened, the first few times, I just froze, because I wasn't expecting it, and I didn't know what to say or what to do or when - I'm such a people-pleaser," one person told the review.

"I didn't want to say anything that was going to upset him, and then jeopardise my job. Because he's made it very clear that he's very powerful."

Another person spoke of being subject to inappropriate behaviour from "a particular QC - who is now a judge" at a function for barristers.

The review was told "a lot of people don't really understand what sexual harassment is" and "some people think it's funny or they have a mentality 'oh that's men, that's what they do'."

Dr Szoke's recommendations include changing the appointment guidelines for magistrates and judges to explicitly require they are of good character, and have treated colleagues and clients with respect.

Similar guidelines should also apply to senior counsel appointments.

Meanwhile, the state government was asked to consider giving Victoria's Judicial Commission power to compel documents and information be provided when dealing with complaints.

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

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, according to the review.

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

The review was commissioned by former Victorian attorney-general Jill Hennessy and Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson after an inquiry found former High Court justice Dyson Heydon harassed six associates while he worked there.

Mr Heydon denied the accusations.

Justice Ferguson said sexual harassment was harmful, unlawful and wrong and "goes against everything our justice system is built on".

Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said the government would implement all recommendations relating to it.

"Probably the most chilling component of (the review) is those that are exposed to sexual harassment ... find it impacts their soul and if they do report it they're concerned it will impact their career," she told reporters.

The heads of the state's courts and Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, as well as Court Services Victoria's CEO, also committed to implementing the changes.

They said it would take time and resources but "that does not deter us from our continuing pursuit of a working environment free from sexual harassment".