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Harassment concerns in SA legal profession

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The SA Law Society says it’s concerned about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the state’s legal profession, despite not receiving any formal complaints of harassment over the past two years.

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In a letter to the Equal Opportunity Commission, SA Law Society President Rebecca Sandford wrote that over the past two years the society had only received two informal verbal reports of harassment, but no records of the alleged incidents had been kept.

She said the society had not made any reports of sexual harassment to the state’s Legal Profession Conduct Commissioner, despite being obliged to report all incidents of harassment that come to its attention, regardless of the victim’s wishes.

The data was provided to the Commission as part of an ongoing inquiry into harassment within the state’s legal profession, which was commissioned by the State Parliament in October.

The inquiry is examining the adequacy of existing complaints processes and whether an independent complaints body is required to allow lawyers to make anonymous complaints about other legal practitioners or judicial officers.

Sandford, who was appointed Law Society President in January, told the Commission that the society was “concerned at the incidence of sexual harassment within the legal profession and shares the valid concerns which underpin this inquiry”.

She wrote that a 2018 survey conducted by the society with members of its Young Lawyers’ Support Group and Professional Advice Service found two of 16 respondents advised that they had been contacted about sexual harassment.

One of the respondents reported “one or two” lawyers present each year with a problem related to sexual harassment, while the other reported “two to five” reports of sexual harassment each year.

“We cannot otherwise advise how many actual instances of sexual harassment were therefore advised to panel members as we do not have any further data,” Sandford wrote.

The Law Society’s Women Lawyers’ Committee claims there has been an increase in reporting harassment over recent years, “which demonstrates the prevalence of harassment in the legal profession”.

In its submission, the committee wrote that much of the data is collected through anonymous surveys, with current reporting systems “lacking in the ability to readily identify systemic issues that may arise through informal complaints or those who may wish for complaints to remain confidential and/or anonymous”.

“These are not reported to a central, independent body and an ongoing reticence to complain due to fear of ostracisation also skews the results,” the committee wrote.

“Further, there is no mandatory requirements for organisations and firms to report instances of harassment in the workplace to a professional or regulatory body.”

The committee wants further consequences to be imposed on those found guilty of perpetrating sexual harassment, including mandatory training or community service with a volunteer organisation that supports victims of harassment or discrimination.

“Punitive consequences such as suspension of practicing certificates or financial penalties are important but are not necessarily the answer,” it wrote.

Sandford wrote that the society wanted the Equal Opportunity Commission to provide training to legal practitioners to ensure that sexual harassment “is not hidden or tolerated”.

The Law Society initially opposed the inquiry taking place, with InDaily reporting in October former President Tim White saying it was “unnecessary”, would “not effectively achieve the outcome it appears directed towards” and would “probably delay the progress and implementation of measures currently well underway” to eliminate harassment in the legal profession.

White said the society understood that sexual harassment was a “serious issue” within the profession and shared the “valid concerns” that underpinned the inquiry, but “the existence of sexual harassment has already been established by a number of surveys undertaken at various levels capturing all subsets of the profession”.

The review was prompted by a motion by SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros, who is a former lawyer.

Bonaros told Parliament that the inquiry “cannot come soon enough”.

“Of all the professions, it is very much my view that the judiciary, the legal profession and each and every member of this place, that is, our lawmakers, those people who are armed with interpreting our laws and applying our laws, should know better,” she said.

“It is abundantly clear that in many instances they do not.”

It follows the release of a damning Equal Opportunity Commission review into harassment in State Parliament.

The survey found eight MPs or political staffers reported being victims of sexual harassment in the last five years.

According to the Commission, six alleged incidents of sexual harassment “might otherwise be considered assault”.

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