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Chief Justice says ‘vanity and alcohol’ a legal profession problem

South Australia’s Chief Justice Chris Kourakis says sexual harassment in the state’s legal profession is being addressed but allegations are still being made, while ego-fuelled personalities and alcohol remain an issue.

Mar 15, 2024, updated Mar 15, 2024
Chief Justice Chris Kourakis says egocentricity and alcohol are an issue for the state's legal profession as it works to tackle sexual harassment in the wake of a damning report. Image: James Taylor/InDaily

Chief Justice Chris Kourakis says egocentricity and alcohol are an issue for the state's legal profession as it works to tackle sexual harassment in the wake of a damning report. Image: James Taylor/InDaily

Kourakis, who has been chief justice since 2012, said there is “still much more work to be done” on how the legal profession deals with sexual harassment and bullying but he has been “comforted” by changes initiated over the last three years.

It comes after the Equal Opportunity Commission released a damning report in 2021 finding that misogyny and sexist/harassing behaviours, particularly against women, are “rampant within the legal sector from both judicial officers and counsel”.

The review found 42 per cent of 600 legal practitioners who responded to the survey reported experiencing sexual or discriminatory behaviour at work. Just under 13 per cent of those said the behaviour was perpetrated by members of the state’s judiciary.

The report also contained graphic examples of reported harassment, including a magistrate allegedly messaging a lawyer during a court hearing to say he imagined them “kneeling between his legs at the bench”.

Kourakis reconvened a working group of judicial officers and legal professional bodies last month, known as the Respectful Behaviour Working Group, to discuss progress since the 2021 report.

The Chief Justice told InDaily that he never personally witnessed any of the behaviour mentioned in the 2021 report, but that he was “not the sort of person to go out for long lunches or partying or be in places where there’s a lot of alcohol with lawyers around”.

“There might be all sorts of reasons why it hasn’t happened in front of me,” Kourakis said.

“But I’ve not been (a witness), and that’s one of the reasons I was shocked and I was angry because I still can’t imagine why people engage in behaviour like that – it’s just so outside what lawyers and judges should stand for.”

Asked why he thought bad behaviour was prevalent in the legal sector, Kourakis blamed egocentric personalities and alcohol.

“I think it is a personality type – a personality you’ll find in all walks of life I’m sure, but we have a good measure of them – people with this fairly egocentric view of the world and high opinion of themselves,” he said.

“I think for obvious reasons the legal profession, but not the legal profession alone, will attract people like that. And I think it’s a combination of that personality type with alcohol, which is a big disinhibitor.

“It’s egocentricity, vanity, having tickets on yourself and alcohol that’s the problem.”

The culture of the legal profession is set to come under renewed scrutiny this year, with the Equal Opportunity Commission compiling a follow up review tracking the sector’s progress since the 2021 report.

The final report will examine the effectiveness of the profession’s harassment laws, policies and complaint mechanisms.

The review is currently calling for submissions from anyone who has worked in a South Australian legal services workplace over the last three years. Kourakis said it was important there is a “strong response” to the survey so the profession can measure its progress since 2021.

The Chief Justice also said he was sure that complaints are being made to institutions at a greater rate now “because there were just about none being made before”.

The damning 2021 report prompted a raft of changes within the legal sector, including mandatory professional development training for lawyers on eliminating bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Kourakis said the report sparked change across the courts, the Law Society and the Bar Association as well as new procedures for handling anonymous complaints and principles about what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

For example, the Legal Profession Conduct Commissioner, which regulates the professional conduct of all lawyers in South Australia, launched a confidential online reporting tool for lawyers to report bullying, discrimination and harassment.

The Commissioner, Anthony Keane, reported in October 2023 that the new “Speak safely” platform “has seen a modest increase in reporting of BDH (bullying, discrimination and harassment) to my Office”.

South Australian universities also moved to support law students on bullying and harassment in the legal profession and offer respectful workplace training before they start placements in the sector.

“I’m comforted by the reaction. And I feel more confident about us changing things around after the reaction,” Kourakis said.

“We actually adopted procedures for making complaints, set up committees that would hear the complaint in the first instance based on a very victim orientated approach which was supportive and allowing the victim full autonomy as to what he or she wanted to do.

“So that’s all given me much more confidence that we can turn it around, but I’m still sure that we haven’t.

“There have still been allegations made since all those steps, all those procedures were put in place, which are disturbing.”

Kourakis said he was concerned about both victims’ understanding of the complaints process and how those processes were working in practice.

He said he feared informal committees set up to handle relatively minor issues could act as a “bamboo curtain” stopping the complaint from reaching a higher level.

“I think we’ve got to have clear protocols at which we inform the complainant about… what level of seriousness or what other attendant circumstances will mean that it’s likely to have to go to someone… who has a statutory or ethical responsibility that can pass that complaint on,” Kourakis said.

“Otherwise, I can see a worst-case scenario where something blows up and gets worse and it’s discovered that it was actually something that had come to the attention of one of these informal committees that hasn’t been passed on.”

Changes flagged to protect victims in judicial conduct investigations

Meanwhile, Attorney-General Kyam Maher is considering amendments to the Judicial Conduct Commission Act to add more protections for complainants in judicial conduct investigations.

The Judicial Conduct Commissioner is responsible for investigating complaints about the conduct of judges. They can advise the Attorney-General to appoint a judicial conduct panel to investigate a complaint if they believe it has sufficient merit.

The state’s first judicial conduct panel was appointed in June 2021 to investigate sexual harassment complaints against then-sitting Magistrate Simon Milazzo.

Among the complainants was former federal prosecutor Alice Bitmead, who first spoke to InDaily in May 2021 alleging she was made to feel like a “sexual object” during her interactions with Milazzo.

The judicial conduct panel’s inquiry took 17 months. The panel eventually recommended Milazzo’s removal from office after finding he engaged in “inappropriate conduct with sexual connotations” with four women over an eight-year period.

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 the panel’s investigation.

Bitmead described the inquiry in November 2022 as a “long, staggered and sometimes quite opaque process”.

Kourakis indicated that the Attorney-General is considering amendments to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act to add greater protections for complainants, including potentially allowing them to be afforded the processes of a vulnerable witness in a criminal trial.

A government spokesperson confirmed the Attorney-General was considering changes to the Act.

“The State Government is currently reviewing aspects of the Judicial Conduct Commission Act to ensure the investigation processes are fit for purpose, and ensure procedural fairness and appropriate protections for complainants,” the spokesperson said.

Kourakis said the legal profession should also think about how to inform complainants about the processes involved after a complaint is reported.

“I think we’ve got to think innovatively about procedures that will reduce the worry, anxiety of complainants about being involved in the process and we’ve got to then make them public, or at least available to someone who makes a complaint,” he said.

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