SA judicial officers accused of sexual harassment and assault

South Australian judicial officers and senior barristers have been accused of “rampant” sexual harassment and assault in a damning report, which cited one magistrate allegedly messaging a lawyer during a court hearing to say he imagined them “kneeling between his legs at the bench”.

Apr 20, 2021, updated Apr 21, 2021
Photo: James Knowler

Photo: James Knowler

The Equal Opportunity Commission review into harassment within South Australia’s legal fraternity, released today, shines a light on “endemic” behaviour perpetrated by some of the state’s highest judicial officers and lawyers towards younger and less experienced associates.

The review, conducted by Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Steph Halliday following a request from state parliament, found that 42 per cent of the 600 legal practitioners who responded to a survey reported experiencing sexual or discriminatory harassment at work.

Just under 13 per cent of those said the behaviour was perpetrated by “very powerful” former members of the state’s judiciary.

A “worrying” 10 per cent of respondents also experienced sexual harassment during court proceedings.

According to Halliday’s report, “more often than not” the alleged perpetrators targeted women who were “very junior members of the profession or administrative staff”.

He told me all the ways he would have sex with me in the car

One respondent reportedly told the Commission that they were “absolutely shocked” to be “continually harassed by a Magistrate”.

“I remember being in his courtroom one morning whilst he was presiding over a matter and he was texting me inappropriately during the case,” the respondent said.

“He said he was imagining me kneeling between his legs at the bench.”

Another respondent told the Commission that several years ago they were “locked in a car on the way to a client function and verbally assaulted by a Special Counsel”.

“He told me all the ways he would have sex with me in the car,” the respondent said.

“He never touched me, but did not stop explaining what he would do to me despite my protests.”

Halliday’s report cites one respondent claiming a Magistrate made “repeated lewd, inappropriate and harassing remarks”, and a former Judge groped and forcibly attempted to kiss a worker.

Another respondent said judicial officers overheard them being subjected to repeated unwelcome comments by one of their colleagues, but “nothing has been done”.

A different respondent said: “the numbers of Justices, Judges and Magistrates I have seen bullying and intimidating all variety of staff, and court visitors, is disgraceful.

“Bullying, harassment and intimidation is endemic in the CAA (Courts Administration Authority).

“Managers see what these Judges etc say and do and simply get away with their behaviour or conduct uninhibited, so they follow suit.”

Halliday noted that that respondents did not detail incidences of harassment perpetrated by any sitting judicial officer.

“Deeply disturbing” reports of sexual violence and assault

Halliday wrote that it was “deeply disturbing” that seven legal practitioners reported being victims of sexual violence or assault while at work.

She wrote that one complainant was a clerk who endured “relentless bullying for years at a former workplace” before she was then sexually harassed by a barrister.

“According to the participant, these instances of harassment persisted for some months and occurred in chambers while the complainant was performing her work,” Halliday wrote.

“The most egregious conduct involved pinning the clerk against his desk, grabbing her by the hips and rubbing his groin against her buttocks, while making comments to the effect that men could be excused for being ‘creeps’ sometimes.”

Halliday wrote that she was also told of an assault incident involving a university student who at the time was completing work experience at a law firm.

Misogyny and sexist/harassing behaviours, particularly against women, are rampant within the legal sector from both judicial officers and counsel

She said the student was “cornered in a bathroom by the male harasser, who was senior in the profession” during an after-work event.

“The harasser exposed his genitals to the victim, pushed them towards her face, and told her to ‘suck it’,” she wrote.

Of the 600 survey respondents, 44 per cent said they had experienced inappropriate touching such as hugging, kissing, or placing a hand on their knee.

One respondent said they had been inappropriately touched at work dinners “more times that I can remember”, while another said they were “grabbed inappropriately twice by a senior colleague”.

Predatory behaviour and “unwanted advances” were also reported by workers, with just under 15 per cent of respondents reporting being pressured for sex.

“[H]e said to me “You do know I want to fuck you, don’t you?” And I said “Yes, I do know that … but, you know, I’m not going to”. And he said “I’ll wear you down.” And I said “No, you won’t.” And … he [also said he] was going to get me drunk and take advantage of me,” one respondent said.

Halliday wrote that the behaviour was fuelled by “a patriarchal and hierarchical culture characterised by intense competition” as well as a “culture of silence” whereby instances of harassment are “minimised, normalised and kept quiet”.

More than half of victims choose not to report harassment

According to Halliday, more than half of harassment victims in the SA legal profession chose not to report concerning behaviour.

Halliday wrote there were a number of reasons, including a lack of understanding and trust in the complaint procedures, fear of career repercussions and a culture where victims believe it is best “not to ‘rock the boat’.”

“Awareness is not the problem. Fear of speaking up is the dominant constraint,” she wrote.

“For those who had reported sexual harassment, about half –  46.1 per cent –  of the respondents indicated there were no consequences to the person they reported.

“Female respondents were more likely than males to indicate a negative outcome from reporting discriminatory harassment, including being ostracised, victimised or ignored.”

One respondent said the reluctance to report harassment was caused by an expectation to “laugh it off rather than make waves for myself and the CAA”.

“Misogyny and sexist/harassing behaviours, particularly against women, are rampant within the legal sector from both judicial officers and counsel,” they said.

“Within the CAA, it is often acknowledged as a ‘joke’ that certain judicial officers are ‘just like that’, confirming the belief that if a report were to be made, not action would be taken and the person making the report would be ostracised.”

New complaints body not required

Halliday made 16 recommendations to “drive education and cultural change within the legal profession”, but she said a new complaints body was not required.

The recommendations, which Attorney-General Vickie Chapman says the Government is “carefully considering”, include mandating that the CAA deliver training every year to judicial officers about harassment prevention.

The recommendations also include appointing new members to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal who have expertise in dealing with sexual harassment.

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They needed to see in black and white what any rational member of the legal profession has known for decades

Halliday said a new complaints body was not needed as there were already existing mechanisms that were not being used.

“The information gathered from participants overwhelmingly suggests that this lack of engagement is due to a lack of confidence in every one of those mechanisms,” she wrote.

“The very clear message is that, of itself, no complaint mechanism will cure the problem and what is in fact required is ongoing cultural change.

“Although it is frustrating and disappointing that this scourge persists in our profession, these are the very workplaces that can – and should – lead change in this area and there are already definite signs of improvement.”

Chapman said Halliday’s review was an “unpleasant read, but a crucially important document”.

The report was handed to Chapman on April 9 by the new Equal Opportunity Commissioner Jodeen Carney – Chapman’s former chief of staff.

“The extent and nature of harassment within the legal profession is alarming, and must be addressed,” Chapman said.

“The fact that nearly half of the respondents who’d experienced some form of sexual harassment didn’t report it because they were concerned of the impact it may have on their careers is unacceptable, and should not happen in a contemporary workplace.”

Chapman told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that a “number of recommendations require consideration of the Courts Administration Authority” and she would meet with Chief Justice Chris Kourakis tomorrow to discuss Halliday’s findings.

In a statement, the CAA said it welcomed “the opportunity the Commissioner’s inquiry has given to victims of harassment to speak out about their experiences, many for the first time”.

It said it would adopt the recommendations relevant to the CAA and also consider recommendations made in a Victorian harassment inquiry published yesterday.

“The Council is very concerned about some of the information provided to the Inquiry but the Commission noted ‘that responses received during the Review did not detail incidences of harassment perpetrated by any sitting judicial officer’,” it said.

“Overbearing and bullying behaviour is totally unacceptable and the Council will continue and increase its efforts to stop it happening and support our employees who have suffered this behaviour.

“Opportunities to report such behaviour in an anonymous or otherwise safe way which were established in 2019 will be publicised even more widely and additional options will be adopted.

“We will arrange for programmes on power imbalances which are being developed by the National Judicial College of Australia for judges to be provided to all South Australian Judicial officers and additional training will be arranged for managers.”

The CAA said staff also had access to an impartial third-party complaints mechanism called STOPline.

Law Society criticised following report’s release

SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros, who moved the motion in the Legislative Council calling for the review, said the findings proved that harassment was “rife” in South Australia’s legal profession.

She said the review provided “confirmation that a root and branch overhaul of the profession’s structures and processes – which are marred by and entrenched with a boy’s club and toxic mentality from top to bottom – is critical”.

It comes after InDaily reported in October that the Law Society of SA warned Bonaros that the review would be “unnecessary” and “probably delay the progress and implementation of measures currently well underway” to eliminate harassment in the legal profession.

Bonaros, a former lawyer, said it “beggars belief” that the Law Society “argued right to the very end that this inquiry was unnecessary”.

“They needed to see in black and white what any rational member of the legal profession has known for decades,” she said.

In a statement, Law Society President Rebecca Sandford said the society welcomed Halliday’s report and accepted that “sexual harassment is a problem in the profession, and is committed to being part of the effort to stamp it out”.

“The report and all its recommendations will now be carefully considered by the society’s council in consultation with committees and the broader membership, following which a more detailed response will be issued,” she said.

“The Society notes that the report acknowledges that the implementation of several of the recommendations will benefit from the work already being done at a national and state level to address sexual harassment.

“The problem of sexual harassment is sadly pervasive across society, and it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part to eliminate it.

“We are optimistic and confident that the work being done at all levels, within and beyond the legal profession, is already having a positive impact on how we treat each other in the workplace and how we deal with harassment, and look forward to continuing to see that work progress so that we can all be safe and respected, including in our workplaces.”

The release of today’s report comes after the Equal Opportunity Commission handed down a damning review into harassment in state parliament last month.

That review found that over 27 per cent of South Australian MPs or their staffers who responded to a survey experienced sexual harassment at least once at work.

Bonaros said today that she was not proud to “belong to not one but two of the worst offending professions”.

“I genuinely hope this report is the turning point for the profession – and that perpetrators of harassment in the legal profession are finally exposed for their disgraceful behaviour.”

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