Statement to the WA Legal Profession from the Executive of the Law Society of Western Australia on Sexual Harassment in any Profession, any Workplace

Statement to the WA Legal Profession from the Executive of the Law Society of Western Australia on Sexual Harassment in any Profession, any Workplace

Thursday, 25 June 2020

There is no place for sexual harassment in any profession, any workplace. Sexual harassment is both unlawful and entirely unacceptable.

The Law Society of Western Australia (Law Society) strongly endorses the statements made by the President of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) in her media release on 22 June 2020 and the Public Notice published by the heads of jurisdiction of the courts and tribunals in Western Australia on 24 June 2020 following the recent allegations of sexual harassment by the Hon Dyson Heydon AC QC and welcomes the commitment of the High Court of Australia to action the recommendations made by the independent inquiry into this matter.

The conduct of harassing Associates, as found by the independent inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment by the former Justice of the High Court, is disgraceful.  The harassment by former judicial officers in Western Australia recently described by former Law Society Council member Judith Fordham on ABC radio is similarly shocking.

The available evidence suggests that sexual harassment within the Australian legal profession is a prevalent and persistent problem. The Law Society’s position is that this is not acceptable. Every person who works in the legal profession is entitled to feel safe and to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Harassment in any form hurts not only the people suffering it, but also the administration of justice. Harassment from the most senior members of the profession would represent an abuse of power antithetical to the rule of law.

The Law Society acknowledges the sustained and tireless work and advocacy of Women Lawyers of Western Australia Inc. In early 2019, Women Lawyers of WA reported that they received over 500 responses to a survey on sexual harassment in the WA legal profession, and those responses formed part of the submissions lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces on 28 February 2019. Findings included:

  • More than half of respondents reported they had not received training or information at their current workplace about sexual harassment.
  • Nearly 42% of respondents confirmed they had personally experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • The most common type of sexual harassment experienced was “lewd jokes or suggestive comments” (77.95%).
  • Less than 10% of those experiencing harassment addressed it by making a formal complaint.

As a signatory to the Law Council of Australia (LCA) Diversity and Equality Charter, the Law Society is committed to continue promoting and supporting workplace change in diversity, equality, respect and inclusion consistent with the principles of justice, integrity, equity and the pursuit of excellence upon which the profession is founded.

In 2013, the LCA conducted the National Attrition and Reengagement Study (the NARS) to investigate the progression, attrition, and reengagement rates of male and female lawyers, obtain qualitative and quantitative data, and identify gendered trends within the profession.

In 2016, the Law Society approved its “Final Directions Paper” in response to the Women Lawyers of Western Australia’s 20th Anniversary Review of the 1994 Chief Justice’s Gender Bias Taskforce Review. The “Final Directions Paper” noted at page 29 that the NARS Report surveyed 4,000 practitioners across Australia. The key findings of the study concerning issue of discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying were as follows:

  •  One in four women and 8% of males surveyed reported having experienced sexual harassment in their current workplace.
  • Female barristers were twice as likely as women working in private practice or in-house legal roles to have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace.

The Law Society has since 2016 completed actions for 25 of the 30 recommendations in that report and continue to progress the remaining five.

In 2019, the Law Society also endorsed the Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) 2019 paper “Seven Strategies for Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”, which suggests simple and direct actions which could be taken specifically to address the issue of sexual harassment more directly by way of seven key ideas for change.

Members of the legal profession all have a duty to work to achieve a profession free of sexual harassment and to do everything we can to ensure every person is treated with equal respect and dignity, both in the workplace and in the community. We must act wherever we can to stop sexual harassment, and all other forms of discrimination and bullying, in our profession.

Individual members of the executive of the Law Society are available if anyone wishes to disclose their own experiences in a confidential and supportive environment. Members may also wish to contact support through LawCare WA.

2020 Law Society Executive:

Nicholas van Hattem, President
Jocelyne Boujos, Senior Vice President
Rebecca Lee, Junior Vice President & Treasurer
Greg McIntyre SC, Immediate Past President
Brooke Sojan, Ordinary member of Council

– ENDS –

For comment please contact:

Madeleine McErlain
Marketing and Communications Manager
(08) 9324 8650

The Law Society of Western Australia is the peak professional association for lawyers in the State. The Society is a not-for-profit association dedicated to the representation of its more than 4,000 members. The Society enhances the legal profession through its position as a respected leader and contributor on law reform, access to justice and the rule of law. The Society is widely acknowledged by the legal profession, government and the community as the voice of the legal profession in Western Australia.

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