Magistrate faces two inquiries over sexual harassment claims

EXCLUSIVE | A federal prosecutor has alleged she was made to feel like a “sexual object” after being repeatedly sexually harassed by a serving South Australian Magistrate, prompting the Judicial Conduct Commissioner and the Chief Justice to launch investigations.

May 04, 2021, updated May 04, 2021
Alice Bitmead's claims about a Magistrate sparked two inquiries. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Alice Bitmead's claims about a Magistrate sparked two inquiries. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

In damning allegations, prosecutor Alice Bitmead has told InDaily that the sitting Magistrate made repeated “inherently sexual” and “deeply uncomfortable” remarks to her at a work function and during office hours in 2018 when she worked in her former role as a District Court judge’s associate.

She has also revealed that she tried raising a complaint with senior judicial officers in the months after the alleged harassment occurred, but has never received a response or apology in the years since.

The allegations are now being investigated by the state’s Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone after a formal complaint was referred to her by Chief Justice Chris Kourakis last week.

Kourakis has also launched his own investigation into why Bitmead’s initial complaint was never brought to his attention.

Bitmead was 25 at the time of the alleged harassment and one year into her career as a judge’s associate.

She said the alleged harassment occurred over three weeks in February 2018 while she worked in close proximity to the Magistrate, who InDaily has chosen not to name and who continues to preside over court cases.

It was inherently sexual and deeply uncomfortable

The alleged harassment started at what was intended to be a “nice, welcoming, professional dinner” involving Bitmead, a judicial assistant and judicial officers.

Bitmead said when the group arrived, the Magistrate, who sat across from her, appeared “really quite obviously intoxicated” and proceeded to drink “quite heavily” throughout the evening.

She said “from the get-go almost as soon as he sat down at the table”, the Magistrate started to make comments about her physical appearance and whether or not she was in a relationship.

The comments then allegedly escalated to remarks about “how much he would like to have a relationship” with her and “how he would love to have a crack if he was one or two years younger”.

“That was straight off the bat at the dinner and everybody around the table was pretty visibly uncomfortable at that, but nobody intervened,” Bitmead said.

“I certainly didn’t say anything to stop that because I felt really uncomfortable effectively telling off somebody who was so senior to me.

“I also felt very uncomfortable rocking the boat.”

Bitmead remembers trying to divert conversation, but she said the Magistrate continued to make “more and more comments that escalated in their inappropriateness”.

It definitely made me feel like I wasn’t valued as being a legal practitioner

She said he started questioning her about her partner, including asking whether or not he “fulfilled” her.

“The heavy implication for that was whether or not he fulfilled me sexually, which was deeply uncomfortable and, again, everybody at this small and intimate table was listening and heard this and were visibly uncomfortable too,” she said.

“I felt like my presence at that dinner had spoilt the dinner.

“It definitely made me feel like I wasn’t valued as being a legal practitioner at that table and that my value in the eyes of that Magistrate was purely as a sexual object.

“It was inherently sexual and deeply uncomfortable.”

After the dinner ended, Bitmead expressed her concerns to a judicial officer who was accompanying her.

She said she was advised not to be alone with the Magistrate in the office or the stairwell.

“I found that to be quite shocking because it felt like the assumption was that he might do something physical to me and that was really unsettling,” she said.

Despite trying to follow the advice and avoid being in the Magistrate’s presence during office hours, she said she was unable to escape the sexual harassment.

She recounts “several times” when she was in the office when the Magistrate allegedly stood behind her chair and put both his hands on the headrest so that they were almost brushing her shoulders.

The inference was you shouldn’t make a complaint because it will negatively impact on your career

She said he would lean in so that his mouth was almost brushing against her neck and whisper, “I know what you did on the weekend. Confess your sins to me. Confess what you did on the weekend”.

“I just felt that he was in such a position of power and I had so little agency that I couldn’t really do anything,” she said.

Armed with the knowledge that she had “repeated witnesses” – some of whom were judicial officers – Bitmead said she went to the judicial officer in whom she initially confided and asked whether she should make a complaint.

I was never offered an apology, I’ve never heard from [the Magistrate] since

She said she was advised not to make a complaint and to let the judicial officer handle the matter.

“I can’t recall if [they] said it or if the inference was just very clear, but the inference was you shouldn’t make a complaint because it will negatively impact on your career,” Bitmead said.

In a statement to InDaily, a spokesperson for Chief Magistrate Mary-Louise Hribal said she “accepts that Ms Bitmead and the judge for whom she worked, took steps to bring the Chief Magistrate’s attention information about the conduct of a Magistrate, but unfortunately it was not brought to her attention until recently”.

Bitmead said she never heard back from the judicial officers involved.

“I was never offered an apology, I’ve never heard from [the Magistrate] since,” she said.

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The “tipping point” for Bitmead came in November last year, when the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission launched an inquiry into sexual harassment in the state’s legal profession.

She immediately completed a survey sent out by the Equal Opportunity Commission outlining her allegations.

But last month, when the Commission handed down its damning report, Bitmead said she was shocked to read a footnote claiming that none of the allegations of sexual harassment that were provided to the Commission involved serving judicial officers.

“I thought it was a really significant omission,” she said.

“It didn’t represent the state of affairs and it doesn’t now and when we’re talking about currently sitting judicial officers this is a really significant thing to be dealing with, so it needs to be accurate.”

After Bitmead approached the Equal Opportunity Commission seeking a correction, the Commission removed the erroneous footnote from its report and issued a press release advising of the correction.

The correction prompted a meeting between Bitmead and Chief Justice Chris Kourakis last Tuesday.

In a statement to InDaily, Kourakis said he offered Bitmead his support to progress any complaint she wished to make.

He said that on Friday he referred Bitmead’s allegations to Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone.

“I am investigating why the matter was not brought to my attention soon after the events complained of,” he said.

“Whether or not the judicial officer against whom the complaint was made should continue to sit requires a consideration of the conduct involved.

“It is not possible to comment publicly on that matter at this time.”

Vanstone confirmed to InDaily that she received the complaint from Kourakis and had begun a preliminary investigation.

“I expect to finish it quite quickly, as long as I can speak to the people I need to,” she said.

“The Act sets out what I must and may do once I have finished my preliminary investigation.

“It should be noted that my functions under the Act do not include making any decision as to whether the allegations are true.

“Whether the Magistrate continues to sit during my investigation is a matter for the Chief Magistrate.”

Vanstone also thanked “the person coming forward and making a complaint to the Chief Justice”.

To call this an open secret is to do a disservice to the definition of secrets, I think, because this goes well beyond that

The Equal Opportunity Commission’s review handed down last month found that 42 per cent of the 600 South Australian 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 members of the state’s judiciary.

Bitmead said she feels “very lucky” to be able to continue working in the law after her experiences.

She said she continues to cross paths with the Magistrate and it is “nerve-wracking” speaking out.

“To call this an open secret is to do a disservice to the definition of secrets, I think, because this goes well beyond that,” she said.

“I’m really hoping that if I do this and I go out on a limb to tell my story publicly, then it will encourage other women to do the same.

“I want to enact the change that I want to see happen.”

In a statement to InDaily, a spokesperson for the Magistrate said: “The matter has been referred to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner by the Chief Justice and is currently under investigation. It is therefore inappropriate to make any comment at this time.”

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