The peak body for lawyers is seeking new anti-harassment measures aimed at judges and a federal judicial watchdog in the wake of the scandal enveloping former High Court justice Dyson Heydon.
The Law Council of Australia resolved at a board meeting on Saturday to call on the Morrison government to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to close loopholes and extend anti-sexual harassment laws to “judges, other statutory office holders and barristers”.
The council believes the coverage of the laws is “irregular, patchy or piecemeal” and “barristers and certain statutory office holders or appointees” are not “expressly covered”.
The council also renewed its longstanding call for a federal judicial commission to receive and investigate complaints about judges at arm’s length.
In a statement on Monday, the High Court revealed an internal investigation had concluded Mr Heydon sexually harassed six young women who worked at the court as judge’s associates.
A Herald investigation has also brought to light allegations Mr Heydon sexually harassed young women while he was Trade Unions Royal Commissioner and at Canberra’s exclusive Commonwealth Club where he stayed while he was on the High Court bench.
Mr Heydon’s lawyers, Speed and Stracey, said in a statement: “Our client denies emphatically any allegation of sexual harassment or any offence.”
At present, complaints about federal judges including High Court judges must be made to the court, and may then be referred to the Attorney-General. Only Parliament has the power to remove a judge from office, on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.
In NSW, complaints are handled by an independent Judicial Commission. It can then refer the matter to State Parliament.
Law Council President Pauline Wright said “the time has come for a robust and transparent process that can consider complaints against judicial officers”.
“If the information which has been disclosed this week does not make clear why an independent oversight body is necessary, then it is unclear what will,” she said.
The directors of the Law Council also endorsed a proposal to convene a national roundtable to tackle sexual harassment in the profession and develop a protocol relating to standards of judicial conduct.
“The attrition rate of women lawyers is high, and experiences of sexual harassment are a key reason why women leave the law,” Ms Wright said.
Attorney-General Christian Porter was not available for comment on the sexual harassment proposal. However, on Friday, he said he was “not closed-minded to further considering the merits and proposed design of a federal judicial commission to handle complaints in relation to the federal judiciary”.
“That remains my position, although impetus from the courts themselves would be a necessary part of that process,” Mr Porter had said.
Mr Heydon has now returned to work as a barrister. A group of 14 senior female barristers in NSW has written to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner to investigate alleged misconduct involving Mr Heydon.
The statutory body has the power to initiate disciplinary proceedings. In serious cases, a barrister may be struck off the roll of practitioners. None of the barristers making the complaint alleged they were the subject of inappropriate behaviour by Mr Heydon.
In a 2005 judgment co-written with then Justice Ian Callinan, the former judges referred to the alleged conduct of an offender “making repeated and alarming proposals of a sexual relationship to a woman scarcely known to the appellant”.
“These experiences must have been very distressing for her: she gave extensive evidence about how they had worried, shocked and scared her,”the judges said.
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Michaela Whitbourn is a legal affairs reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Published at Fri, 26 Jun 2020 23:20:00 +0000