Harassment findings against top judge in Australia prompt calls to improve workplace safety for women

Former Australian High Court judge Dyson Heydon faces allegations of sexually harassing six female judges' associates. PHOTO: HIGH COURT AUSTRALIA

SYDNEY - The revelation that a former Australian High Court judge, Dyson Heydon, allegedly sexually harassed multiple younger women has stunned the legal profession and prompted moves to overhaul workplace practices.

An independent inquiry by the High Court found that Mr Heydon, 77, a world-renowned legal expert, sexually harassed six female judges' associates - five of whom worked for him - during his time on the court from 2003 to 2013. The role of associate to one of Australia's seven High Court judges is one of the country's most prestigious, keenly-contested positions for young lawyers.

In a statement last week, the High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel confirmed the inquiry's findings. She said the court had apologised to the women and was "ashamed that this could have happened".

"Their accounts of their experiences at the time have been believed," she said. "I have appreciated the opportunity to talk with a number of the women about their experiences and to apologise to them in person."

Mr Heydon's lawyers "emphatically" denied the allegations of sexual harassment or any offence.

"Our client says that if any conduct of his has caused offence, that result was inadvertent and unintended and he apologises for any offence caused," the lawyers said in a statement.

The allegations have sent shock waves across the legal community and led to calls for changes in workplace practices at law firms, courts and barristers' chambers.

The Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, said the allegations involving Mr Heydon were "very disturbing and very concerning and they're incredibly serious". He said all workplaces should prevent harassment and ensure people can confidently report misconduct, adding that he wanted his own two young daughters to have a safe future in the workplace.

"When my girls go to work, I want them to go to work in a safe environment where they are valued and respected for their talents and their abilities," he said. "I would just be devastated if they ever found themselves in a situation like that."

The High Court said it had adopted the recommendations of the inquiry into the allegations against Mr Heydon and would develop a further human resources policy for its associates. It will also appoint a person at the court who can "check in regularly with associates" and provide support.

The Law Council of Australia, a peak national body for lawyers, said a failure to address sexual harassment was prompting women lawyers to quit the legal profession. It called on the federal government to create a federal judicial commission that can deal with complaints.

"The attrition rate of women lawyers is high, and experiences of sexual harassment are a key reason why women leave the law," the council said in a statement. "This is damaging and costly - for individuals, for firms, and for the current and future standing of the legal profession."

Mr Heydon, a father of four, was one of the country's most prominent jurists. A university medallist and former Rhodes Scholar, he was regarded as a conservative, black-letter judge and was appointed to the High Court by the former conservative prime minister, Mr John Howard. Mr Heydon also headed a royal commission into the trade union movement after being appointed in 2014 by another former conservative prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott. Both Mr Howard and Mr Abbott belong to Mr Morisson's ruling Liberal-National coalition.

Following the High Court's release of the inquiry's findings, Mr Heydon resigned as an international judge of the Singapore International Commercial Court. A spokesman for Singapore's Supreme Court said that he resigned "in view of the recent developments and to enable him to deal with the outcome of the inquiry".

There are now calls to strip Mr Heydon of his Queen's Counsel title - which is bestowed on leading barristers - and also his award of the Companion of the Order of Australia. Police in the Australian Capital Territory said they were making inquiries into the allegations against him but said they could not confirm whether a formal investigation had been launched. Three of his former associates are planning to lodge compensation claims against him.

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