Sexual harassment is an ‘open secret’ in Victoria’s legal profession, according to a damning new report.
The Review of Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts found many of the state’s top barristers, lawyers and judicial officers perpetuate harassment.
Sexual harassment an ‘open secret’
Victoria’s Attorney General and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court commissioned the 83-page report following the Dyson Heydon scandal.
The state’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission interviewed both men and women who work in Victorian courts and VCAT.
The report found a “toxic culture” exists in the sector that sees women and junior staff as “less than”.
It found sexually suggestive comments and jokes are rife.
It also found intrusive questions and unwelcome comments on physical appearance are accepted as part of the job.
Report author Doctor Helen Szoke said victims felt unsafe and also feared speaking out.
“When the justice system fails to meet expected standards of conduct, it is not just the individual victim-survivors who suffer – the community’s confidence in the system will suffer.
“Society will question its trust in a system when those responsible for that system do not all abide by expected standards of conduct.”
Young graduates targeted
The report found those targeted by inappropriate conduct are mainly young law graduates new to the profession.
Women told stories of wearing less makeup, in addition to wearing pants and no high heels to avoid attracting attention to themselves.
One person described how a much older man cornered them at a party and in a photocopy room.
The older man spoke about his sex life and visiting prostitutes.
Another participant told investigators a judicial officer invited her out for dinner one night and then took her back to his house.
“I didn’t feel like I could say no to the original invitation and I was very lucky that I was texting my best friend as this was all going on because I was genuinely concerned for my safety.”
Fear of speaking up
The report also found processes for reporting inappropriate conduct and the way such reports are handled are inadequate.
Two people surveyed said they feared for their jobs and careers if they spoke out.
“I didn’t want to say anything that was going to upset him, and then jeopardise my job,” the account read.
“He’s made it clear that he’s very powerful.”
Dr Szoke makes 20 recommendations in her report, including strengthening the complaints process for those reporting sexual harassment.
She also recommends developing a sexual harassment policy and making changes to recruitment processes.
“Sexual harassment continues to be pervasive and under-reported in many workplaces,” Dr Szoke said.
“The scale and depth of the task ahead to implement the recommendations of this review should not be underestimated.”