Sexual harassment in Vic courts ‘accepted as part of the job’, review finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday April 20, 2021

The Victorian Supreme Court had held the federal government responsible for security guards on Manus Island failing to protect Berati and other detainees during a 2014 riot.(Craig/Adobe)

People working in Victorian courts face significant barriers to reporting instances of sexual harassment in the workplace and experience a culture that allows such behaviour to continue, according to a landmark report released on Monday.

The final report of the review of sexual harassment in Victorian courts aims to stamp out sexual harassment and build a positive workplace culture throughout Victorian courts and the Victorian Courts Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

Led by former Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner Dr Helen Szoke, the review was initiated last year, following the release of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s report on sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal sector, and explosive allegations made against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.

The final report has revealed that the review heard of “serious instances” of sexual harassment during its consultations, and has identified three common themes:

  • Sexual harassment is an ‘open secret’ in the legal profession,
  • There are significant barriers preventing victim-survivors and witnesses from reporting sexual harassment that occurs in the courts and VCAT,
  • Sexual harassment is frequently reported as being perpetuated and experienced by barristers.

Szoke noted that “many women and some men” spoke up about that ‘open secret’.

“Women also spoke of everyday sexism and a culture that often sees women and junior staff as ‘less than’,” she wrote in the report.

“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.”

READ MORE: Review into sexual harassment in Victorian courts underway

The inquiry also heard of “deficient systemic responses” to sexual harassment disclosures, and the environment that allows these behaviours to continue, according to Szoke.

“The review was told that sexual harassment and the silence surrounding these behaviours is perpetuated by the power inequalities in the court setting and a legal profession requiring patronage and a network to progress,” she said.

The report has made 20 recommendations which focus on the operation of the courts and VCAT, and the systems in place for judicial officers, VCAT members, and Court Services Victoria staff. However, it noted that there is also a “pressing” need for reform in the broader legal profession.

The recommendations aim to achieve a number of outcomes, including:

  • Strong and effective leadership driving successful, long-term reform,
  • A positive workplace culture,
  • Diversity and gender equality,
  • Victim-survivor-centred support, reporting, and response,
  • Organisational capability and knowledge,
  • Ensuring integrity and accountability,
  • Effective monitoring and evaluation.

Key recommendations include legislative changes that address systemic issues and ensure workers are protected against sexual harassment, as well as improvements to reporting and training.

State attorney-general Jaclyn Symes on Monday pledged to work with relevant agencies, heads of jurisdiction and ministers to ensure the recommendations are addressed.

“This report puts sexual harassment in Victorian courts and the harm it causes in the spotlight where it can’t be ignored any longer,” she said in a statement.

“I welcome this clear path to building a better and safer culture and an aim of stamping out this unacceptable behaviour for good.”

READ MORE: Victoria appoints first gender equality commissioner

Chief justice of Victoria Anne Ferguson has said that “concrete action” is already being taken to implement the recommendations.

The Judicial Commission of Victoria, which can investigate complaints about the conduct of current judicial officers and VCAT members, said it was committed to working alongside others in the sector to prioritise the implementation of this report.

“The commission supports each of the recommendations which have been made to it. The commission has commenced preparation of a guideline to clearly set out appropriate standards,” it said in a statement.

“The broader review being conducted by the commission of its processes is carefully considering the matters raised by the report to strengthen sexual harassment complaint and investigation processes.”

In welcoming the report, outgoing Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner Kristen Hilton noted that Victorian employers have a duty to not just respond to sexual harassment, but also to prevent it from occurring in the first place under the Equal Opportunity Act.

“The minimum standards in our guideline support employers — including public institutions like Victoria’s court and VCAT — to meet their positive duty and ensure employees can come to work knowing they will be protected from sexual harassment,” she said.

Hilton urged anyone who has experienced sexual harassment within a Victorian court, tribunal or other organisation, to contact VEOHRC’s enquiry line on 1300 292 153.

READ MORE: The law is a man’s world. Unless the culture changes, women will continue to be talked over, marginalised and harassed


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