Australia: Family Court judge resigns amid sexual harassment investigation

It’s endemic in positions of power in Australia.

A Family Court judge based in Parramatta has resigned after an independent investigation found that he had sexually harassed two junior female court staff.

An independent conduct committee investigation confirmed the allegations of two unwelcome hugs and inappropriate communications in 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2020 by the Parramatta judge, identified by media as Joe Harman. The findings are now part of a separate investigation to review the true extent of his misconduct.

The Honourable Chief Justice Will Alstergren said that the “sexualised” nature of his behaviour was “totally unacceptable and inexcusable”. In addition to offering support to the two victims, he has also asked for their suggestions as to how the court could improve its judicial complaints process and the working environment.

“The judge’s conduct is of great concern to the court as is the harm caused to these young women,” Chief Justice Alstergren said in a statement on the matter. “The court is ashamed that such conduct could occur, especially by someone of such standing and responsibility as a serving judge and in circumstances where he held a position of trust and respect to each of the complainants.”

The first complaint was received in July 2020 by a former law student and, having found that they warranted further investigation, Chief Justice Alstergren asked three Supreme Court of Victoria judges to review. The Honourable Julie Dodds-Streeton QC, the Honourable David Habersberger QC and the Honourable Katharine Williams QC then broadened their investigation to include the second complaint received in September 2020.

Judge Harman has been on leave since the commencement of the investigation in August 2020, with his duties and responsibilities allocated to other judges and court registrars. Judge Harman and the two complainants were offered legal representation of their choice, counselling and other support during this process.