26 June 2020 

The scourge of sexual harassment in the profession must be stamped out


The findings of a High Court investigation into the conduct of the Hon Dyson Heydon AC QC are deeply troubling and have cast a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the legal profession.

The Law Society commends the High Court for the manner in which has dealt with the allegations against the former High Court Judge and the example it has set.  We hope it will give those in the profession who have been subject to sexual harassment the confidence to speak out, and for their complaints to be taken seriously and be subject to just processes.

The Law Society, through participation in and conduct of local, national and global surveys, and through the work of its various dedicated committees and taskforces, is acutely aware that sexual harassment is a significant problem in the profession across Australia.

We also know that a disproportionate number of victims are women in junior roles, and that harassment often occurs in circumstances where there is a power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator.

It is clear, too, that victims of sexual harassment often face an invidious situation where if they speak out about the mistreatment they suffered, they risk personal and career repercussions.

Following a survey conducted by the Society in 2018 which indicated a concerning level of sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying in the profession, the Society formed a Working Group to develop and enact a number of initiatives to combat harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace.

However, there is much more work to be done within the profession to ensure those who engage in predatory behaviour are held to account, to support victims who speak out, and most importantly, to create a culture that does not enable harassment to happen in the first place. 

In addition to the expectation that lawyers exhibit the moral awareness to treat all colleagues with respect, practitioners are reminded of Rule 42 of the Australian Solicitor Conduct Rules, which states that a solicitor must not engage in discrimination, sexual harassment of workplace bullying.

I strongly encourage all practices to adopt Law Council’s Diversity and Equality Charter, and commit to observing its principles.

It is to the great detriment of the profession when talented lawyers leave the profession because of poor treatment in the workplace. It is completely unacceptable for any worker to feel unsafe at their place of work.

Everyone has the right to feel safe at work and be treated with respect. 

Tim White, President, Law Society of SA