- In Hill v Hughes  FCCA 1267, a principal of a law firm was ordered to pay damages in the sum of $170,000 for sexually harassing a paralegal. The sum consisted of general damages and the highest award of aggravated damages in a sexual harassment claim.
- The decision coincides with the release of the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner’s new procedure for receiving and dealing with complaints about sexual harassment or discrimination by someone in a law practice.
- The profession has been issued with a timely reminder to take steps to eliminate sexual harassment or risk facing the costly consequences.
The recent decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (‘FCCA’) in Hill v Hughes  FCCA 1267 has sent a strong message to the legal profession to take action to combat sexual harassment or risk facing the costly consequences. This article examines that case against a backdrop of widespread harassment in the profession. It concludes with an update on the new complaint-handling and disciplinary procedures launched by the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner.
Sexual harassment in the Australian legal profession
Sexual harassment in the Australian legal profession is rife, according to the most recent surveys and reports.
In 2018, the International Bar Association conducted the largest-ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. The report, entitled ‘Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession’, confirms that 47 per cent of female lawyers and 13 per cent of male lawyers in Australia have been sexually harassed. These statistics are alarmingly high and sit well above the global average. The Women Lawyers Association of NSW also conducted a survey in 2018, which revealed 71 per cent of respondents reported they had been sexually harassed while engaged in the legal profession. The majority stated that the perpetrator was a person they reported to and the conduct consisted of unwelcome and offensive comments in the workplace or at social events.
The decision in Hill v Hughes
The decision in Hill v Hughes  FCCA 1267 (‘Hill‘) is a condemnation of sexual harassment in the legal profession, with Vasta J ordering a new highest award of aggravated damages in a sexual harassment claim.
Ms Catherine Hill, a single mother described by the FCCA (at ) as ‘socially and individually vulnerable’, was employed as a paralegal by Mr Owen Hughes, a solicitor and principal of the small firm Beesley and Hughes. At the outset of the employment relationship, Mr Hughes volunteered to act as Ms Hill’s legal representative at a mediation with her former husband. As a result of this, Ms Hill shared information about her personal life with Mr Hughes. This contributed to the power imbalance between Mr Hughes and Ms Hill, which Mr Hughes subsequently exploited through his actions.