Australian government apologises, compensates High Court staff over sexual harassment

The Australian government has apologised to three women who worked for the country's most powerful court, awarding them an undisclosed settlement after they were found to have been sexually harassed by a High Court justice.

Published : 14 Feb 2022, 09:09 AM
Updated : 14 Feb 2022, 09:09 AM

The settlement was reached almost two years after a review conducted for the court found six female staff had been sexually harassed by Dyson Heydon, who served on the High Court of Australia for a decade until 2013.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said in a statement on Monday the government recognised the bravery of the three women in telling their stories.

"We have listened to them and we apologise," she said.

"The Australian government takes sexual harassment seriously – harassment is unacceptable in any context."

Lawyers acting for Heydon have previously told local media he denied any allegations of predatory behaviour or unlawful acts and "if any conduct of his has caused offence, that result was inadvertent and unintended, and he apologises for any offence caused".

The 2020 statement by Heydon's lawyers noted the inquiry was conducted by a public servant and not a judge. The law firm, Speed and Stracey, didn't respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The Morrison government, which faces an election by May, has been criticised for its handling of a series of sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination cases, and opened parliament last week with an apology to staff who had suffered abuse there. read more

Two prominent campaigners for sexual abuse victims, former Australian of the year Grace Tame and former political staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped in a ministerial office by another staffer, the next day said in speeches that action was needed more than words. read more

The three women who received the government payout worked as judges associates at the High Court, and first complained about their treatment in 2019, prompting an investigation.

The women's lawyer, Josh Bornstein, said a non-disclosure agreement prevented discussion of the compensation amount paid by the government, but the women were relieved to finalise the claims and happy with the settlements reached.

"They have asked me to convey their strong conviction that women should not feel ashamed to pursue financial settlements in sexual harassment cases because sexual harassment will only start to recede when there is a clear recognition that it has a substantial cost to organisations and individuals who are implicated," he said in a statement.

Heydon was also an author of legal texts, including some published by Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Reuters. In 2020, the company said it was reviewing its relationship with Heydon in light of the findings.

Thomson Reuters did not immediately respond to a request for comment.