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Sexual harassment report

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Sexual harassment in the Victorian legal sector report

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A message from the Board Chair and Commissioner

This report sets out the findings of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s (VLSB+C’s) profession-wide study on sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal sector. 

The study – the first of its kind to be undertaken by an Australian legal regulator – involved two anonymous surveys. All lawyers who held Victorian practising certificates as at 30 June 2019 were invited to complete our Practitioner survey, and tell us about their experience of sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal workplaces. Separately, principals of law practices were sent our Management Practices survey, and asked to tell us about the measures that their organisations have in place to address sexual harassment.

Our study was met with a strong and positive response from the profession. We’d particularly like to recognise and thank the more than 2,300 lawyers who took the time to respond to the Practitioner survey. You have given us deep and important insights into the extent and nature of sexual harassment in Victoria’s legal workplaces, and added to the body of knowledge about the prevalence of sexual harassment in specific areas of the Australian economy. Our thanks also to the 259 law practices who responded with candour to the Management Practices survey, providing information about their organisations’ sexual harassment-related training, policies and procedures. 

So that we could draw comparisons between Victorian lawyers’ experiences of sexual harassment and the experiences of the broader Australian working population, we used the Australian Human Rights Commission’s excellent fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces to inform the structure and content of our Practitioner survey. We thank the AHRC for allowing us to do this. 

Consistent with the AHRC’s findings for Australian workplaces generally, our study found that sexual harassment is widespread in Victoria’s legal profession, with more than one in three lawyers having experienced sexual harassment at work. It is also a current issue – most of those who told us they had been harassed said the latest incident happened within the previous five years, and many of these individuals had been harassed within the previous 12 months. 

Women in the profession are particularly affected by sexual harassment. Close to two thirds of female respondents have experienced this behaviour, compared with just over one in ten male respondents. Those in junior positions (including women) are particularly vulnerable to this experience. In many cases, respondents told us that being harassed had been highly destructive to their personal wellbeing, and often their careers.  

As is the case in other Australian workplaces, perpetrators of harassment in Victoria’s legal sector are almost always male. It’s common for incidents of sexual harassment to be part of a pattern of behaviour, and for harassers to be known for being involved in similar incidents. Disturbingly, we also found that perpetrators of sexual harassment are very often senior to the person they harass, and are most often senior members of the profession.   

Few incidents of sexual harassment were reported either formally or informally by the victim, and even fewer bystanders – one in ten – reported incidents they witnessed or heard about first-hand. The rate of bystander reporting in the profession is significantly lower than the rate for bystanders in Australian workplaces generally.

In terms of workplace policies and training measures, responses to the Management Practices survey suggest that a significant number of legal workplaces do not have documented sexual harassment policies, and that specific workplace training and education to prevent sexual harassment is rare. Respondents to that survey also perceived sexual harassment in the profession to be less prevalent than respondents to the Practitioner survey – likely because of their relative power and exposure to this behaviour.

A lack of appropriate sexual harassment policies, procedures and training in many of Victoria’s legal workplaces is a problem that can be addressed relatively easily. Other problems identified in this report are going to be more complex to resolve, and will require significant commitment and leadership across the profession. Key challenges for leaders in the profession are to:

  • build a culture in which sexual harassment is not tolerated and in which those who experience, witness and hear about this behaviour speak up 
  • identify and introduce mechanisms that ameliorate the potential for abuses of power in the form of sexual harassment, and 
  • destabilise structures that support serial harassers. 

We at the VLSB+C are dedicated to working with the profession to meet these challenges and drive the changes that are necessary to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment in legal workplaces. 

We will also – where necessary and appropriate – take regulatory action to address instances of sexual harassment by individuals, and failures by law practices to manage sexual harassment in their ranks. We will do this not just because sexual harassment can, and does, have a profoundly damaging effect on individuals, but because it is behaviour which is unethical, a breach of lawyers’ professional and other legal requirements, and undermines the reputation and capacity of the legal profession as a whole. 

It is important for all Victorian lawyers – and particularly those in leadership roles – to read this report and consider what they personally can do to contribute to reducing sexual harassment in their profession. Be assured that the VLSB+C stands with you in this task. 

Fiona Bennett

Chair, Victorian Legal Services Board

Fiona McLeay

Victorian Legal Services Commissioner and Board CEO


The report was published in March 2020.

Reporting sexual harassment

If you wish to discuss a matter confidentially, or make a complaint relating to sexual harassment by a lawyer, please:

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