Judge Found to Have Sexually Harassed Court Staff

by Sonia Hickey
Family Federal Court

Parramatta Federal Circuit Court Judge, Joe Harmon, has been found to have sexually harassed two young women after an internal inquiry.

The inquiry was initiated after one of the victims sought legal advice. In a statement,

The Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court William Alstergren said:

“The behaviour was totally unacceptable and inexcusable” and “the Judge’s conduct is of great concern to the Court, as is the harm caused to these young women.”

He also apologised to both complainants and thanked them for “their courage and fortitude” in coming forward.

Junior workers sexually harassed

The first young woman was in a junior role working closely with the judge at the Parramatta Court registry.

Her complaint was made in July 2020. The second young woman was a former law student who complained to the court in September.

On receiving the first complaint Judge Alstergren constituted an inquiry chaired by former Supreme Court judge Julie Dodds-Streeton QC.

The inquiry found that in 2020 the judge emailed her repeatedly and made harassing comments before his conduct escalated to two instances of unwelcome physical touching.

During the Federal Circuit Court inquiry process it came to light another young woman had complained of sexual harassment by the same judge.

Neither young woman was aware of the other’s experience.

Findings of internal investigation

Following its investigation, the Conduct Committee delivered a confidential report on April 1, this year. It stated:

“The Committee’s investigation found that, in each case, the complainant’s allegations were substantiated and that the Judge had engaged in conduct towards each complainant that was sexualised in nature and otherwise inappropriate,” the court said in its statement.

“The conduct the subject of the complaints, principally, involved inappropriate communication that occurred in 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2020. One complaint also involved two unwelcome hugs.

“The Committee found that neither the Judge’s medical condition nor his workload could justify or excuse his inappropriate conduct towards either of the complainants.”

Recommendations

The Committee recommended the complaints be referred to the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash for her consideration, and that Judge Alstergren take steps to ascertain whether any other people had been the subject of inappropriate behaviour by the judge.

The court has since appointed workplace specialist lawyer Stephen Price to undertake that review.

Judge Harman had been on leave since the investigation began, and has since resigned.

The court has made all its judges attend a presentation on judicial misconduct and has reviewed its complaints process.

Changes to the Sex Discrimination Act are imminent

Sexual harassment is rife across all Australian workplaces and the legal profession is no different. Last year a similar internal inquiry conducted in the High Court by found sexual harassment claims of six women against Justice Dyson Heydon AC to be substantiated.

Mr Heydon strongly denies the accusations, but a number of the women who have made allegations are now pursuing civil action against him.

And, currently the High Court itself is under investigation by the Federal workplace health and safety watchdog Comcare which aims to determine whether the court took reasonable steps to eliminate bullying and harassment from its workplace.

Both are known risks to health and safety and the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act 2011 requires employers to take reasonable and  practicable steps to eliminate or minimise workplace risks to health and safety.

The young court employee who was sexually harassed by Former Federal Circuit Court Judge Joe Harmon has spent several months on extended medical leave as a result of the harassment.

It’s understood that when she first complained about the treatment, she was allegedly told something to the effect of “there’s not much you can do about it because he’s a judge”.

However, that is set to change.

In April this year Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that his Government will accept “wholly, in part, or in principle” the 55 recommendations made in the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020).

The Inquiry was led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who is now undertaking a review within Parliament House in the wake of serious sexual assault allegations made by Brittany Higggins.

Judges and politicians may face dismissal for sexual harassment

The proposed reforms, which are due to be implemented imminently (the original deadline was mid-2021), include significant changes for employees within all levels of Australian Courts, and in politics because the reforms will hold politicians and judges accountable for acts of sexual harassment.

Up until now, politicians and judges have been considered exempt from the Act due to the fact they are technically not a complainant’s employer.

However, the changes will mean that public servants such as members of parliament, magistrates and judges face dismissal if they are found to have engaged in sexual harassment.

Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law

It is important to note that while the internal inquiry findings substantiate the claims of these women, both Justice Dyson Heydon and former Judge Joe Harmon are still innocent of the allegations until and unless it is proven otherwise in a court of law.

Both of the women who made allegations against Judge Harmon, as well as the Judge himself have been offered counselling and legal support. One of the women is now pursuing compensation.

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Author

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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