‘Incredibly intimidating’: Prosecutor speaks of magistrate harassment inquiry

A federal prosecutor whose sexual harassment complaint prompted an unprecedented judicial inquiry which led to an Adelaide magistrate’s dismissal is seeking a “really frank” talk with the Attorney-General about being cross-examined by a Queen’s Counsel during the secretive process.

Nov 18, 2022, updated Nov 18, 2022
Federal prosecutor Alice Bitmead. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Federal prosecutor Alice Bitmead. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Alice Bitmead told InDaily that the past 18 months had been “gruelling”, “intense” and “scary” as she fought to have her account of being sexually harassed by former Magistrate Simon Milazzo acted upon by the state government and judiciary.

Bitmead and three other women who lodged sexual harassment complaints against Milazzo were required to give evidence and submit to a cross-examination by a then Queen’s Counsel as part of a judicial conduct panel investigation – the first in South Australia’s history.

A day after the panel’s final report was tabled in parliament – finding that Milazzo had made “inappropriate conduct with sexual connotations” with the four women over a near eight-year period and recommending his dismissal – Bitmead said she finally feels “gratified”.

“It’s just a relief to have it finally done,” she said.

“It’s been a long, staggered and sometimes quite opaque process and it’s been very emotionally challenging.

“I’ve definitely been subject to a lot of scrutiny, a lot of sideways looks around the courts precincts and from other practitioners, which can be quite unsettling.”

Bitmead’s story first came to light when she spoke to InDaily in May last year.

The federal prosecutor said she was made to feel like a “sexual object” after Milazzo 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 said Milazzo questioned whether her partner “fulfilled” her, made comments alluding to “how much he would like to have a relationship” with her and whispered “confess your sins to me” in her ear.

I was still terrified about the thought of submitting myself to cross examination by a QC

But at the time, InDaily was prevented from publishing Milazzo’s name due to strict secrecy provisions under the Judicial Conduct Commissioner (JCC) Act 2015 – legislation similar to the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Act which until last year had never been tested.

Two months after Bitmead first spoke to InDaily and lodged her formal complaint, Milazzo was formally suspended from office – prompting the then Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone to give InDaily permission to publish his name.

Bitmead said she is allowed to speak to InDaily in general terms about the process she experienced after lodging her sexual harassment complaint, but legal advice suggested she should not go into the specifics of the process due to the legislation.

“I am hesitant to go into too many details just in case I am open to liability for that, because I understand the clause in the JCC Act still binds participants, which is frustrating,” she said.

“It’s a general non-publication clause for individuals and companies to talk about what goes on in the process of these hearings.

“I think it would be really valuable for other people thinking about coming forward to hear a frank recount of how the process works and how the process might make them feel if it’s something that they choose to go through.

“Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s something I can do.

“I think that it’s quite counterintuitive for supporting people to come forward if there’s such a cloak of secrecy over how these proceedings work, even retrospectively after a report has been tabled.”

InDaily in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Bitmead is allowed to speak generally about being cross-examined by a QC as that was mentioned in the judicial conduct panel’s report.

She said she was concerned that her experience might deter others from coming forward with sexual harassment complaints concerning members of the state’s judiciary.

“I’m a federal prosecutor and I’m very well versed in the criminal justice system and the burden of proof and the realities of giving evidence, and I was still terrified about the thought of submitting myself to cross examination by a QC,” she said.

“I can’t imagine what that would be like for a clerk, or an admin officer, or a junior lawyer, or someone just starting out in the profession.

“It’s an incredibly intimidating prospect, so I am concerned that that would prevent more people from speaking out.”

According to Bitmead, the “stakes were really high” in going through with the judicial conduct panel investigation.

She said her work as a federal prosecutor could have been impacted if the panel made adverse findings about her reliability.

“As a prosecutor, I have to carry myself as a model litigant at all times,” she said.

“If there were findings made about me in the course of these proceedings that for whatever reason I had lied under oath, or I had misrepresented the truth, or had for any reason misstated my understanding of what had happened in my dealings with Simon Milazzo… I would have had to report those to my workplace.

“It would have impacted on my ability to keep doing my job.”

Bitmead said she wanted to meet with Attorney-General Kyam Maher to discuss her concerns.

“I’d like to have a really frank conversation with him about the whole process and about a lot of barriers that felt like I faced throughout the process in obtaining this outcome,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of positive things that have come out of the way this process has run its course but I do think that feedback mechanism is really important so that it is the best that it can be for future complainants.”

Over past 18 months, Bitmead said she had been approached by several legal practitioners who had told her about their experiences of being sexually harassed within the profession.

“This doesn’t feel like the end and I’m hoping that there’s a lot of people that are shifting uncomfortably in their seats today now that this report has been tabled, knowing that this isn’t the kind of thing that is going to be swept under the rug any more.”

Maher told InDaily that for the first time, a judicial officer had been removed under the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act.

“The Government will be taking a very close look at what has occurred and, to the extent that they are willing, talking to those involved to share their experiences,” he said.

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InDaily.
All rights reserved.