An investigation commissioned by the High Court has found former judge Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six young female associates when he was on the court.
In a statement late Monday, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel said: “We’re ashamed that this could have happened at the High Court of Australia”.
Heydon served on the court between 2003 and 2013. He came to national political attention when then prime minister Tony Abbott appointed him as royal commissioner to investigate trade union governance and corruption.
Kiefel said the court had acted immediately to commission an independent inquiry after receiving last year the allegations of sexual harassment. The investigation was done by Vivienne Thom, a former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.
Five of the associates worked for Heydon.
Kiefel said the court had “made a sincere apology to the six women whose complaints were borne out. We know it would have been difficult to come forward.
"Their accounts of their experiences at the time have been believed. I have appreciated the opportunity to talk with a number of the women about their experiences and to apologise to them in person.” She said she had also valued their suggestions for change.
The Sydney Morning Herald, which published late Monday the result of its own investigation, said Heydon’s predatory behaviour had been an “open secret” in legal and judicial circles.
The Herald reported that Heydon in a statement through his lawyers Speed and Stracey had denied the allegations in the High Court inquiry.
“In respect of the confidential inquiry and its subsequent confidential report, any allegation of predatory behaviour or breaches of the law is categorically denied by our client,” the statement said.
“Our client says that if any conduct of his has caused offence, that result was inadvertent and unintended, and he apologises for any offence caused.”
The law firm Maurice Blackburn is representing three of the women, including Rachael Collins and Chelsea Tabart.
The investigation was instigated after Josh Bornstein, principal lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, then representing two of the women, wrote to the chief justice and the court’s chief executive in March last year with allegations of the harassment. Bornstein also raised concerns about inadequate procedures within the court for dealing with judicial misconduct.
Bornstein said in a statement on Monday the investigation had unveiled a pattern of predatory behaviour and sexual harassment over many years towards young female associates Heydon employed. When the harassment occurred Heydon was “in his 60s, a conservative judge, a prominent Christian and a married man”.
“The women he employed were in their early 20s and often straight out of university. He was one of the most powerful men in the country, who could make or break their future careers in the law,” Bornstein said.
“There was an extreme power imbalance between Mr Heydon and the young women he preyed on. The fear of his power and influence meant that the women did not feel able to come forward until recently,” he said.
He said the investigation “also found that the associates employed by the High Court were largely on their own in trying to protect themselves and manage Mr Heydon’s behaviour.
"The Court did not have a clear procedure which permitted a complaint of mistreatment by a judge to be aired.
"As a result, outgoing female associates felt a duty to try and warn incoming female associates of Mr Heydon’s behaviour and to give advice about how to try and protect themselves,” Bornstein said. A number of the women had abandoned legal careers after these experiences, he said.
The Herald reported that a current judge had told it “Mr Heydon slid his hand between her thighs at a professional law dinner not long after he joined the High Court bench.”
It quoted the unnamed judge, who was a barrister at the time of the incident, as saying, “He indecently assaulted me. I have no doubt it was a crime and he knew I was not consenting.” She told the Herald Heydon was too powerful to complain about, saying he “was a giant of the profession”.
Kiefel said the investigation had made a number of recommendations that the court had acted on. These were to
develop a supplementary HR policy to cover personal staff of justices
review the induction of associates to ensure it covers material relevant to their role
identify an appropriate person to form a closer working relationship with associates. The person would liaise with associates and provide support if required
clarify that the requirements for associates to observe confidentiality related only to court work
make clear to associates they were not obliged to attend social functions
consider canvassing current associates to find out more about their experiences while working at the court.
“We have moved to do all we can to make sure the experiences of these women will not be repeated,” Kiefel said. “We have made sure there is both support and confidential avenues for complaint if anything like this were to happen again.”
Law Council of Australia president Pauline Wright said: “The attrition rate of women lawyers is high, and experiences of sexual harassment are a key reason why women leave the law”.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra