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From the president: In support of health and safety

From the president: In support of health and safety

By Sam Pandya

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We must take proactive steps to eliminate sexual harassment from the profession.

While I write this column, Victoria is experiencing a new surge of COVID-19 cases, particularly across Melbourne’s suburbs. The pandemic continues to test our resolve as individuals and a community to suppress a highly contagious virus for which there is currently no vaccine. Many of us, currently living and working in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, are now under tough restrictions again, a situation we had not expected when restrictions began to ease in May and June 2020. 

If we had not done so already, we are coming to accept the harsh reality that, to fight this persistent health challenge as a community, we need to prioritise the principles of public health and safety over our own personal comfort. While the sacrifices required are more difficult and challenging for some of us than others, our collective wellbeing requires a long-term commitment from each of us to play our part.

In some important ways, our obligations to each other throughout this health crisis can be compared to our obligations as individual practitioners, and as a profession, to take proactive steps to eliminate sexual harassment. Addressing the persistent problem of abuse of power in our organisations and workplaces (which can also include bullying or racist, homophobic or other harassment or vilification) will also require a collective and individual commitment to overcome our own discomfort to ensure the health and safety of our colleagues. We all have an active role to play in creating and maintaining healthy and inclusive organisations free from sexual harassment and other forms of abuse of power.

The legal profession’s recent #MeToo reckoning has resulted in significant activity and collaboration to help us to make genuine and lasting cultural change as individuals, organisations and as a profession. 

As you may be aware, the Victorian government has announced an investigation, to be led by Dr Helen Szoke, who is a current member of the Judicial Commission, into practices to prevent and address sexual harassment across the state’s courts and VCAT. The government has also announced that the Department of Justice will undertake a separate review of the internal processes of law firms who provide legal services to the state government.

In order to support its members, the LIV, the Victorian Bar and the Legal Services Commissioner have been working closely to coordinate and promote policies and procedures for the Victorian profession, including enhanced training and effective complaints-handling processes that appropriately support complainants, respondents and witnesses. In collaboration with leaders in the profession, the LIV will be developing training programs and practical templates to assist members, particularly smaller practices, many of whom have no internal human resources departments, so that all firms have the capability to ensure their practices and processes are robust and effective to address and prevent sexual harassment and other abuses of power. 

At a national level, I was recently involved in a Law Council of Australia (LCA) roundtable on sexual harassment, hosted by LCA president Pauline Wright and attended by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who has recently conducted a review of sexual harassment in Australian organisations. It was also attended by Victorian Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay, who, together with the VLSB, conducted a 2019 survey on sexual harassment of Victorian legal professionals where around one in three of the 2324 respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment while working in the legal sector. The roundtable canvassed and supported various legislative proposals to strengthen sexual harassment laws, conduct rules, defamation laws and occupational health and safety laws to better address this issue. It also acknowledged that law reform needs to occur together with measures to promote cultural change and respectful and inclusive attitudes towards others in the workplace. The LCA will now be working with state and territory member associations to develop a national blueprint for action on sexual harassment specifically for the legal profession.

As a profession and as practitioners, we should consider this historic moment to be an opportunity to affirm our commitment to seriously tackle this issue, rather than passively allowing the burden to continue to fall onto the shoulders of our colleagues. We can all contribute to the health of our profession, and the safety of our colleagues, through the thoughtful actions we take each day: to educate ourselves, actively and courageously support our colleagues and create and sustain a profession that no longer tolerates these behaviours. ■

Sam Pandya

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