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Chief justice says he couldn't investigate "open secret" of harassment

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South Australia’s chief justice Chris Kourakis says he was aware of allegations of sexual harassment and assault in the legal profession, but hasn’t been in a position to investigate the “open secret” for two decades.

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It follows yesterday’s release of a damning Equal Opportunity Commission report into harassment in the state’s legal profession, which revealed allegations of former judicial officers and senior lawyers perpetrating “rampant” acts of sexual harassment and assault towards younger and less experienced associates.

Kourakis told ABC Radio Adelaide that he was “white-hot angry” after reading the report, but he was not surprised by the findings, claiming it was “inevitable” that such allegations would come out.

“It was really good to give so many victims of harassment a voice finally and an opportunity to have what has happened to them acknowledged,” he said.

“I wasn’t surprised that there was conduct complained of by judicial officers – that was, I thought, fairly inevitable given what I knew to be the position in the profession generally.

“It has been described as an open secret that is no longer a secret – that has come out and has been disclosed and I think that’s probably accurate.”

He said he had been aware of allegations during the course of his career in the law.

“I have heard those sorts of accounts. It has been discussed. I can’t recall ever seeing anything like that in my presence, but it was known, it was discussed, and the… identity of the peoples who engaged in it are talked about. I have not seen it so it’s not something I know first-hand.”

Kourakis said the last time he was “in a position to do anything” about any allegations of sexual harassment and assault was in 2001 when he was president of the Law Society.

He said the issue was “certainly not discussed then” and it wasn’t “on the agenda as an issue ever in Law Society meetings”.

“The fact is I and everyone else in the profession going back that far and further could have done things to do about it,” he said.

“We’re probably not in a different position to any other section of the community if you go back to those times.”

The Equal Opportunity Commission report found that 42 per cent of the 600 legal practitioners who responded to a survey reported experiencing sexual or discriminatory harassment at work.

According to the report, “more often than not” the alleged perpetrators targeted women who were “very junior members of the profession or administrative staff”.

Kourakis this morning met with Attorney-General Vickie Chapman and the heads of SA Courts to discuss the findings and the Equal Opportunity Commission’s recommendations.

He said the Courts Administration Authority had already implemented strategies to stamp out harassment, but “we’ve really got to think about how we look at them again, make sure they’re robust enough, but also consider what our responsibility is for the historical position”.

“Anyone who thinks that the job at hand and the job back then is a matter of just simply eliminating bad behaviour has got it wrong and will not succeed in changing things,” he said.

“These things happen because of more broader gender inequality – not taking your colleagues who are not men, (who) are women, who are of other diverse backgrounds, seriously.”

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