Lawyers who fail to prevent sexual harassment or discrimination of their staff face disbarment or lose their right to practice.
New Sex Discrimination Anna Cody issued the warning as she get set to take on the role on 12 December, the AFR reports.
Employers to take proactive action to prevent harassment or discrimination
Ms Cody, a lawyer herself, said she will be tougher on the legal industry than other sectors.
The bodies that oversee the rights of solicitors and barristers to practise law have committed to closely monitoring legal practitioners.
The new legal obligation took effect last December, however the commission’s powers to enforce compliance only happened recently.
Ms Cody said the Human Rights Commission had increased resources and is ready to crack down on offenders as soon as possible.
Her expectations of legal chambers is higher, given they “clearly have a very high level of knowledge” of discrimination and harassment laws.
Profession’s bad reputation
The legal profession has a bad reputation when it comes to sexual harassment.
Previously South Australian District Court Judge Timothy Heffernan resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
South Australian magistrate Simon Milazzo was removed from the bench over allegations of sexual harassment.
Controversial former Victorian magistrate Richard Pithouse also resigned over allegations he harassed a junior solicitor.
Finally, there was the case of High Court judge Dyson Heydon who was found to have sexually harassed four junior staffers.
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A ‘reminder’ to the profession
Victorian Legal Services Board chief executive and commissioner Fiona McLeay welcomed Ms Cody’s intention to focus on the legal profession.
She noted the number of investigations and prosecutions under way into sexual misconduct.
“We’ve been clear with the profession that sexual harassment is totally unacceptable. Any lawyer who engages in this behaviour in the workplace is breaching rules of professional conduct. Ms McLeay said.
“They are also opening themselves up to serious professional consequences, as well as possible civil and criminal liability.”
A 2019 report by the board found that many legal workplaces did not have appropriate sexual harassment policies, procedures or training in place.
61 percent of female lawyers in Victoria reported experiencing harassment.
“We’re hopeful that the commissioner beginning to enforce the positive duty is a reminder to those in the profession who haven’t already implemented these interventions and risk management tools to do so urgently,” Ms McLeay said.
The heads of the country’s biggest bar associations also warned they will take a tough stance on non-compliance uncovered by the sex discrimination commissioner.
These include the Victorian Bar and NSW Bar Association.
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