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Call for sexual harassment inquiry into SA legal profession

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SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros will today call for an independent investigation into workplace harassment within South Australia’s legal profession, with the former lawyer saying she is “no longer willing to sit by” and let it continue.

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It comes after a High Court investigation this month found former judge Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six young female associates when he was on the court, prompting more than 500 women working in the law to write to federal Attorney-General Christian Porter seeking changes to the way judges are disciplined and appointed.  

Bonaros, a former lawyer who earlier this year made a sexual harassment complaint against ex-Liberal MP Sam Duluk, claimed harassment was “rife” within South Australia’s legal workplace.  

She will today introduce a motion in the upper house calling on SA Attorney-General Vickie Chapman to request that the state’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner launch an “independent, comprehensive” investigation.

The crossbencher wants the inquiry to consider the adequacy of existing laws and policies relating to harassment in the legal profession, as well as to determine whether an independent body should be formed to allow lawyers to make complaints in a “confidential, sensitive and anonymous” way.

“I think I’ve now reached a point where frankly I’m sick of this sort of behaviour,” Bonaros told InDaily. 

“I certainly experienced it in my early days as a law graduate and in my very limited early days in legal practice and it was abhorrent behaviour then and it’s abhorrent behaviour now.  

“We’ve remained silent in relation to this behaviour for too long and I’m no longer willing to sit by and watch this continue – to hear from my colleagues that they’ve been subjected to inappropriate behaviour in their workplace and that they feel like there is nothing they can do. 

“I think we’ve reached a tipping point and it is absolutely time that we dealt with this issue.” 

The SA Law Society reported a “concerning” level of bullying and harassment in the legal workplace following a survey it conducted in 2018.  

The survey showed a “disproportionate” number of victims were women in junior roles, and that the harassment often occurred in circumstances where there was a power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator. 

Law Society president Tim White said he had not been consulted on Bonaros’ motion.

He said a number of inquiries on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the legal profession had already taken place and “now is the time for action”. 

“The society is well aware that sexual harassment in the legal profession is a problem,” he said.

“The solution is multi-faceted, but ultimately we need to establish a culture of inclusiveness, respect and diversity in all workplaces, and instil in all workplace environments that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”

Meanwhile, the State Government is seeking to amend the Equal Opportunity Act to ensure sexual harassment between MPs is covered under the legislation.  

It follows allegations Duluk sexually harassed Bonaros at a Christmas function at Parliament House last year.

Duluk is due to appear in the Adelaide Magistrates Court in October on a basic assault charge.

Bonaros threw her support behind the proposed legislative changes, but she said the rules should also extend to members of the state’s judiciary.

“It is not acceptable to have one set of rules for lawyers and judges and members of parliament and another set of rules for everybody else,” she said.

“We need to ensure that anyone who is subjected to harassment and including sexual harassment, racial vilification, bullying, discrimination based on disability, has equal access to the Equal Opportunity Commissioner.”

Chapman said she had recently met with the state’s Legal Profession Conduct Commissioner, Greg May, and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Niki Vincent, to discuss the prevalence of sexual harassment complaints.

The Attorney-General said to date, neither commissioner had received sexual harassment complaints from the legal workforce.

“Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any profession,” she said. 

“The State’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner is able to investigate any instances of sexual harassment under current legislation.

“If she is made aware of any complaint in the future, I would hope an investigation takes place.”

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