Plan to strip misbehaving judges of their pension gathers support

Former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.

Former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.

An attempt to cut former High Court judges off from their pension if they've sexually harassed employees is a welcome move, but unlikely to fix the problem on its own, submissions to a Senate hearing have argued.

While the bill put forward by independent Senator Rex Patrick has the support of Labor and the Greens it is also unlikely to pass into law.

The proposal has seized on public outrage over women's experiences in the legal industry and a perception that those in the country's most eminent positions manage to avoid accountability for their behaviour.

Most notably, former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon was last year found to have serially sexually harassed young female associates, a finding he denies.

While there are ways to kick poorly behaving judges off the bench there is no way to strip a former judge of their entitlements. Mr Heydon continues to receive a pension.

Senator Patrick's bill attempts to fix that loophole.

It's part of a broader reckoning within the legal industry aiming to hold those in power accountable but the problem is not isolated to the country's highest court.

Only this week, a South Australian review revealed disturbing accounts of women lawyers who had been sexually harassed at work: 10 per cent had been harassed during a proceeding.

One woman said she had received text messages from a presiding judge saying he was "imagining me kneeling between his legs at the bench" while the case was being heard.

The Patrick bill will hear submissions at a public hearing on Friday but some already published online were supportive of the intent if not the form of the bill.

One submission argues the proposal is unlikely to address the root cause of sexual harassment without greater, broader and more creative reform.

The submission from Victorian Women Lawyers said while it supports the proposal it is "likely to have limited effect as a stand-alone deterrent to sexual harassment and other serious misconduct by judges".

The volunteer association said the bill failed to address gender inequality in law, or the barriers faced by victims reporting senior members of the profession.

But it made several suggestions of what might work alongside the proposal and supported creative deterrents to sexual harassment and other serious misconduct.

One suggestion is the removal of any caps on damages for sexual harassment.

Another example is any money collected from fines, for example, be reallocated to victims to help them report, recover, pursue legal action, or compensate them for injury to their career or mental health.

Other suggestions included victim-focused complaint and investigation processes, as well as school-based education and mandatory workplace programs.

Labor's shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, said the opposition supported the bill but believed it was necessary to go further and he hinted at greater accountability of judges in the future.

He said the findings against Mr Heydon and the flood of disclosures of abuse and harassment since shows Australia "urgently needed" to establish a formal complaints body to deal with misconduct claims.

The government did not respond to a request for comment but a submission from the Attorney-General's Department said there were serious questions about whether the proposed bill was constitutional.

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This story Plan to strip misbehaving judges of their pension gathers support first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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