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Magistrate under harassment investigation barred from sitting in court

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EXCLUSIVE: A serving Magistrate who is under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner for alleged sexual harassment has been directed by the Chief Magistrate not to continue sitting in court while the inquiry takes place. 

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Chief Magistrate Mary-Louise Hribal confirmed her decision in a statement to InDaily late this afternoon.

“As a result of a direction given by the Chief Magistrate, the magistrate who is under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Commissioner for alleged sexual harassment, will not be sitting in Court,” she said.

The statement did not say how long the investigation was expected to take or how long the Magistrate would be away from his post.

It comes after InDaily revealed yesterday that Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone had launched a preliminary investigation into allegations the Magistrate sexually harassed a District Court judge’s associate in 2018.

In an interview with InDaily, Alice Bitmead, who is now a federal prosecutor, claimed she was made to feel like a “sexual object” after the Magistrate allegedly made repeated “inherently sexual” and “deeply uncomfortable” remarks to her at a work dinner and during office hours.

Bitmead alleged the harassment occurred over three weeks in February 2018 while she worked in close proximity to the Magistrate, who InDaily has chosen not to name.

She claimed over that time, the Magistrate questioned whether her partner “fulfilled” her and made comments alluding to “how much he would like to have a relationship” with her.

Bitmead also alleged she tried raising a complaint with senior judicial officers in the months after the alleged harassment occurred, but has never received a response or apology in the years since.

The allegations prompted Chief Justice Chris Kourakis to launch a separate investigation into why Bitmead’s allegations were not brought to his attention in 2018.

The Courts Administration Authority spokesperson told InDaily this morning that Kourakis’ investigation would result in protocols being developed that would raise “matters of this kind” promptly to the attention of the Chief Justice, the Chief Judge and the Chief Magistrate.

Meanwhile, Vanstone issued a public statement this morning saying she was “troubled’ by recent reports of alleged inappropriate conduct by judicial officers.

She said inappropriate conduct “should not happen in any workplace” and “if it does happen it should be called out and the person responsible for the conduct should be held accountable”.

She said a recent damning report into sexual harassment in the legal profession, handed down by the Equal Opportunity Commission last month, pointed to “serious cultural problems in the legal profession which give rise to poor behaviour, in great part because of the hierarchical nature of the profession”.

“Judicial officers sit at the top of this hierarchy,” she said.

“If judicial officers regard such a culture as acceptable and bring it with them to the courts, they will face an uncertain future.

“The conduct of judicial officers — officers who sit in judgement on the conduct of others — should be beyond reproach.

“I have little doubt that this is the case for most of South Australia’s judicial officers.”

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

Just under 13 per cent of those said the behaviour was perpetrated by judicial officers.

Vanstone said that until last Friday, her office had not received any sexual harassment complaints, which she suspected was due to a “fear of speaking up”.

“I understand the fear but if it is not reported, it will not stop,” she said.

“I call on any individuals who have experienced inappropriate conduct by a judicial officer to find the courage to make a report to me – because if not you, then who?”

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