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From the president: Reflecting on culture and tradition

From the president: Reflecting on culture and tradition

By Tania Wolff

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We must continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards and ensure legal workplaces are inclusive and safe.

Recently I had the privilege of attending the farewell for Justice Pamela Tate of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Victoria. It was an intimate gathering of judges (current and retired), barristers, colleagues, associates and friends, held in the Law Library of the Supreme Court, one of Victoria’s oldest and most majestic buildings. 

Many years have passed since I had last ventured into the Law Library. I was immediately struck by the sense of occasion one feels, simply by walking through its impressive doors with its domed ceiling, rich burgundy carpet, plush leather chairs and tall bookshelves. It’s a remarkable place, steeped in history, culture and tradition. 

It was the perfect setting for a farewell. Warm, witty and appreciative speeches were made by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chris Maxwell and outgoing Victorian Solicitor-General and recently appointed judge of the Court of Appeal Justice Kristen Walker QC. Both speeches honoured Justice Tate and highlighted her considerable contribution to the profession and the law over a long and distinguished career. 

As I was listening, I found myself reflecting on the week that had passed and on Dr Helen Szoke’s landmark Report into Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts and VCAT, published a few days earlier (see News p11). Former Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy and Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson initiated the review in the wake of sexual harassment allegations made against retired High Court judge Dyson Heydon. 

The report is a disturbing read. It found that sexual harassment is an “open secret” in the courts and that there is a culture of “everyday sexism”, one that often sees women as “less than”. It revealed the normalisation of behaviour in which sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about private lives and unwelcome comments on physical appearance are routinely accepted as “part of the job”. The report also refers to a 2019 VLSB+C survey of legal professionals that found more than one third of women had experienced sexual harassment in the legal workplace. 

The report described courts as a workplace where many women were made to feel unsafe and where there are significant obstacles to reporting sexual harassment. One particular quote stayed with me: “If you put up with the behaviour it kills your soul; if you complain it kills your career”.

As I was reflecting on the report, my eyes scanned the distinguished group of legal luminaries, a significant proportion of whom were women. There were current and former justices of the Supreme Court, including the VCAT president, barristers, QCs, the then Solicitor-General and soon-to-be judge of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. 

It struck me that many of these women, including Justice Tate, had started their legal careers (as the best and brightest in our profession often do), as associates to judges. Fortunately, these extraordinary women in the room remained in the law and have forged impressive and inspirational careers from which we all continue to benefit. 

But I wondered, how many others have we lost along the way? How many bright, talented, capable women, like the former associates of retired High Court judge Dyson Heydon, were so traumatised by the workplace behaviour they experienced that they left the law? I was overcome by sadness at the thought of such an immense, unquantifiable loss. 

To her credit, and exemplifying her leadership, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson acknowledged the harm that has occurred in the courts and VCAT, and expressed her commitment to implementing recommendations of Dr Szoke’s report. Cultural change takes time, but the response has been heartening. 

The report focuses on the courts and VCAT. But sexual harassment, of course, is not confined to those domains: it is especially prevalent wherever hierarchical structures and significant power imbalances exist. As lawyers, we must continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards and ensure our workplaces are inclusive and safe. 

Much to my surprise, as the evening came to a close, Justice Tate graciously and generously acknowledged my presence and asked me to convey to the solicitors of this state her gratitude for their support, over many years. 

After decades of important contributions to the law – as a policy adviser, the first woman Solicitor-General in Victoria, Special Counsel to the Human Rights Consultation Committee that recommended the enactment in Victoria of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, mentor, barrister and judge of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria – we thank you for your kind acknowledgement, Justice Tate, but it is we who owe you the greater debt of gratitude. ■

Tania Wolff
LIV PRESIDENT

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