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Legal Services Commissioner cracks down on sexual harassment in firms

Legal Services Commissioner cracks down on sexual harassment in firms

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management Women's Rights 

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Law firms can no longer assume they will get away with sexual harassment and bad behaviour towards women, Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay told a forum on sexism and gender inequality in the Victorian legal and justice sector.

"As the regulator I remind lawyers that the harassment of women is a conduct issue, which means that it can attract my regulatory attention."

"It’s unprofessional conduct and perhaps professional misconduct and we will treat it that way. We will look at the full range of powers that we have to try and get to the bottom of it and we will hold law firms accountable for what happens in their firms."

The panel forum was discussing the first stage of the Starts With Us study being conducted by the Women’s Legal Service Victoria and funded by the state government’s Free from Violence strategy. It aims to support and encourage legal and justice professionals and organisations to take action to prevent violence against women.

The report gathered stories from almost 300 sector professionals which show that sexual harassment and disrespect towards women is pervasive, women’s career prospects are routinely stunted and victim-blaming is common. It also suggested the profession was still characterised by a "boys club" culture where women are demeaned and objectified.

"What resonated in the report is the impact of the way men’s behaviour is condoned," Ms McLeay said. Men still had a sense of entitlement within the workplace "to be in charge, to be the loudest, to pursue, to harass and to leer ," Court of Appeal Justice Chris Maxwell told the session.

"I’ve conducted eight or 10 meetings where women have talked about their experience of sexual harassment in a whole range of forms – from sexist remarks in front of solicitors and comments on people's appearance, to propositioning and pursuit that women are all too familiar with."

A lack of sanctions have contributed to a culture of impunity and have emboldened men to assert this sense of entitlement on the assumption that no one is going to do anything about it, Justice Maxwell said.

But, despite the apparent bleakness of the report, things were slowly changing, he said. "The majority of men are open to being educated. Because most of us don't know. And once they start listening and learning, good men realise there is a problem and that they have a responsibility to do something about it."

What was needed was small ‘a’ activists who model good behaviour in their workplace, he said. "We have to get to male accountability and ultimately the denunciation of male misbehaviour. We have to be able to make people feel genuinely ashamed of their conduct."

There were still huge obstacles against women speaking up about their harassment, the forum heard.

Part of the problem was that while firms might have policies on sexual harassment, those policies too often sat on the shelf rather than being translated into the culture of a firm, said Cara Gleeson, Director of Practice Leadership at Our Watch. “Policies are nothing but a statement of intention – and unless you put that intention into action it really doesn’t make a difference.”

Ms McLeay said the Legal Services Board was encouraging people to come in and tell their stories. People could go straight to the LSB with a complaint she pointed out, and staff had been trained to take calls "from those brave enough to ring in with complaints".

“We might already have reports on that same lawyer or that same firm. That is enough for us to go in."

Fears of being accused of defamation were of concern, Ms McLeay acknowledged. "Law firms who have had to deal with lawyers who have behaved inappropriately know that one of the first things they do is to threaten to issue defamation proceedings against complainants."

But Justice Maxwell said that could be countered if there was someone within an organisation to whom a complainant could speak to in absolute confidence. "Those who are offended against need to know the mechanisms of complaint and that they are trustworthy and that nothing goes further unless you decide to take it to the next level. The guarantee of confidentially means that defamation is not a risk."

He said there were also options for web based platforms that allowed the confidential logging of complaints at a central point. “An individual might be prepared to take a complaint further if they knew there were others complaining about the same person.”

Ultimately however the aim was not just to build a culture that encourages people to complain about bad behaviour, but one that discourages people from behaving badly int eh first place, said Ms Gleeson.

"You need to have an entire firm and an entire culture and an entire sector that is actively taking steps to stamp this behaviour out," she said.

The next stage of the project is to develop a sector-wide action plan to build on the knowledge captured in the discussion paper. More infomration about the project can be found here.


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