MOTION: Inquiry into harassment in the legal profession

Mark briefly spoke in support of this motion calling for an independent inquiry by the equal opportunity commissioner into the prevalence of harassment, including sexual harassment, in the legal profession in South Australia.


Motion of Hon. C. Bonaros:

That this council calls on the Attorney-General, within three months of the passing of this motion, to instigate an independent inquiry by the equal opportunity commissioner into the prevalence of harassment, including sexual harassment, in the legal profession in South Australia and to report to the parliament on the following matters:

1. The adequacy of existing laws, policies, structures and complaint mechanisms relating to harassment, including sexual harassment, in the South Australian legal profession; and

2. Improvements that may be made to existing laws, policies, structures and complaint mechanisms relating to harassment, including sexual harassment, in the South Australian legal profession.

And that the inquiry into the above matters include consideration of, but not be limited to, the following:

(a) identifying measures to implement policies and procedures to appropriately address the issue, including the development of clear and enforceable standards of appropriate conduct;

(b) considering the establishment of an independent complaints body as a mechanism for individuals to make complaints in a confidential and supportive environment with appropriate legal protections against recrimination;

(c) ensuring any independent complaints body:

(i) has a diverse membership;

(ii) is transparent in its processes;

(iii) has appropriate investigative powers;

(iv) consults widely with a broad range of stakeholders; and

(v) provides for appropriate avenues of redress in the event a complaint is made out.

(d) consider any other relevant matters.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Thank you, Mr President. Along with the equivalent provisions for members of parliament, these are long overdue reforms. However, as the Hon. Connie Bonaros has pointed out, they are not perfect and grey areas remain. Nevertheless, it is a start. I am also pleased that all parties are going to support this motion today. I note from InDaily an article published this afternoon by the journalist Stephanie Richards under the heading 'Govt backs harassment inquiry into legal profession, but Parliament House off limits'.

Now, I am not going to revisit the Parliament House issue, but it does seem as if the government is going to get behind this inquiry into the legal profession, and that is a good thing. The motion calls for an inquiry by the equal opportunity commissioner, which I support, but I would also note that the legal profession itself has begun to realise that it has a problem, and there is now growing leadership beginning to emerge on this issue. For example, on Monday of this week the Adelaide Law School hosted a seminar as part of its Next Steps series, which was entitled, 'Maintaining integrity at work'.

The seminar featured the Hon. Chief Justice Chris Kourakis; Amy Nikolovski, the immediate past president of the Law Society; along with law school lecturer Dr Gabrielle Golding. This is a pretty impressive line-up of senior legal figures in this state to discuss exactly these issues—discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying in the legal workplace. This would never have happened when I studied law at university in the 1970s and 1980s. So the profession is onto it.

I make this point not to say, 'Well, if the profession is onto it, therefore we don't need an inquiry.' Rather, it is to say that I think an inquiry would support initiatives like this, because the value of an inquiry is that it can help expose the extent of the problem, and it can bring on board more people, more members of the legal profession, to help stamp out this inappropriate behaviour. So I see current moves within the legal profession and this equal opportunity commissioner inquiry we are debating now to be complementary.

We know from experience that in hierarchical professions such as law there is a great incentive to keep your mouth shut. After all, making a complaint against a senior member of the profession—a High Court judge, for example—can be seen as a career limiting move. But we also know that there is strength in numbers, as the Me Too movement has shown, and I have no doubt that, given an appropriate and safe space to raise issues of concern, many members of the legal profession will participate in the inquiry. We will have a much better idea of the nature and scope of the problem and what needs to be done to fix it. So I am pleased to be supporting this motion.