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Victorian government to probe sexual harassment practices at courts, law firms

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An investigation in June by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald uncovered allegations from senior legal figures of predatory behaviour by Mr Heydon. The women claimed that his status as one of the most powerful men in the legal sector protected him from being held to account for his actions.

The review, initiated by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria Anne Ferguson, will consider measures to prevent sexual harassment, improve reporting and support for those who experience it, and ensure accountability in workplaces throughout the legal profession.

Firms that fall short of the standard the government determines to be appropriate for internal audits will be given an opportunity to bring their processes up to scratch or face the prospect of their contracts — sometimes running into the millions of dollars — being discontinued.

The state government is possibly the biggest consumer of legal services in the state. Contracts awarded to various firms are lucrative and run into millions of dollars.

Some firms that contract with the government have several thousand employees, and many count the state government among their biggest clients.

Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said a workplace that was not free of sexual harassment was not a safe workplace, and the review would aim to “improve workplace culture and enforce compliance”.

Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy says a workplace that is not free of sexual harassment is not a safe workplace.

Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy says a workplace that is not free of sexual harassment is not a safe workplace.Credit:Joe Armao

“I want to thank the women who have bravely stood up and shared their stories, as well as acknowledge the commitment from our heads of jurisdiction to ensuring their workplaces are safe, healthy and respectful.”

Justice Ferguson, who is also Chair of the Courts Council, said Victoria’s courts and tribunals were united in their commitment to building a culture of respect across their workplaces.

“Improper and unethical conduct will not be tolerated under any circumstances and we look forward to working with Dr Szoke’s review.”

Head of employment law at Maurice Blackburn, Josh Bornstein, who is also representing alleged victims of Mr Heydon, said sexual harassment was by no means confined to the High Court, and the government should consider establishing an independent body to deal with such complaints.

Justice Anne Ferguson says Victoria’s courts and tribunals are united in their commitment to building a culture of respect across their workplaces.

Justice Anne Ferguson says Victoria’s courts and tribunals are united in their commitment to building a culture of respect across their workplaces.Credit:The Age

At present, there are female heads of jurisdiction at VCAT, the supreme, magistrates and children’s courts, and 50 per cent female representation at the Magistrates Court.

The review will be undertaken in close consultation with the Judicial Commission of Victoria to ensure the state’s judiciary maintains the highest standards of integrity.

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