(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

It’s not much use toughening up sexual harassment laws if some of the biggest offenders are actually within the legal system.

That’s the depressing conclusion you could draw from two damning reports this week which revealed widespread sexual misconduct at the highest levels in the South Australian and Victorian legal establishments.

On Monday former human rights commissioner Helen Szoke released a report finding sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal profession is an “open secret”.

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It found there had been a “stunning lack” of process to protect workers in Victorian courts against sex harassment from judicial officers, including judges and senior lawyers.

A day later comes an equally disturbing report into sexual misconduct within the South Australian legal profession which found harassment goes right to the top. Just over half of women working in the law there have been harassed.

The individual cases cited in the SA report were shocking. A female lawyer appearing in court was sent texts during the trial from an Adelaide magistrate saying he was imagining “kneeling between her legs” while he was sitting on the bench.

But wait there’s more.

When one female legal professional complained to a judge about serious harassment by a barrister, the judge responded by saying he wanted to throw her to the floor and “fuck her” because he loved “strong women”.

The reports are another example of the hypocrisy of the sexual harassment debate where those who make the laws — politicians — and those meant to uphold the laws — judges — and those meant to at least comprehend the laws if not respect them — lawyers — are some of the worst offenders.

The starkest example, before the recent Parliament House revelations, was last year’s exposé by Nine newspapers of serious sexual harassment by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. The reports sparked widespread stories of misconduct throughout the legal fraternity in what was called a Me Too moment for Australian law.

Indeed it was that story which sparked the Victorian review initiated by former state attorney-general Jill Hennessy with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson.

Ferguson said in response to the release of the review this week “sexual harassment is harmful, unlawful and wrong. It goes against everything our justice system is built on.” She said there would be zero tolerance.

Her comments echo those of High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel after Kiefel’s report into the Dyson Heydon allegations made the scandal public.

Although it is obviously welcome that women head up the highest courts and are investigating and condemning this conduct, you cannot help wonder how they managed to miss the problems their own reports claim are so prevalent.

Remember it was only this month that the Morrison government announced it would implement that section of the Kate Jenkins report into sexual harassment which extended the law to include judges.

Good luck with that.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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