Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) defines the nature and circumstances in which sexual harassment is unlawful. It is also unlawful for a person to be victimised for making, or proposing to make, a complaint of sexual harassment to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Examples of sexually harassing behaviour include:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • suggestive comments or jokes;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person's private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

A working environment or workplace culture that is sexually permeated or hostile will also amount to unlawful sexual harassment.

Some of the factors emerging from the case law which may indicate a potentially hostile environment include the display of obscene or pornographic materials, general sexual banter, crude conversation or innuendo and offensive jokes. See 1.2.4 of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Code of Practice for Employers for further information.

A person who sexually harasses is primarily responsible for the sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act. However, in many cases, employers and others can be held responsible under the Sex Discrimination Act for acts of sexual harassment done by their employers or agents.

For further information see Chapter 3 of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Code of Practice for Employers.

Employers may limit their liability if they can show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment occurring. Reasonable steps may include policies and procedures designed to create a harassment-free environment. It could also include procedures to deal with allegations of discrimination made by employees or customers. To be effective, policies must be well implemented, including through the provision of ongoing training, communication and reinforcement.

Source: Australian Human Rights Commission

Rule 42. Anti-discrimination and harassment

42.1 A solicitor must not in the course of practice, engage in conduct which constitutes:

42.1.1 discrimination;

42.1.2 sexual harassment; or

42.1.3 workplace bullying

sexual harassment” means harassment that is unlawful under the applicable state, territory or federal anti-discrimination or human rights legislation.

The Bar Association of Queensland Barristers' Conduct Rules.


4. The object of these Rules is to ensure that all barristers:

(a) act in accordance with the general principles of professional conduct;


5. These Rules are made in the belief that:

(b) barristers must maintain high standards of professional conduct;



12. A barrister must not engage in conduct which is:

(a) dishonest or otherwise discreditable to a barrister;
(b) prejudicial to the administration of justice; or
(c) likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute.

Bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, criminal, or other potential conduct issues by legal professionals or law practice employees, should be referred to the Legal Services Commission for consideration so that any serious conduct matters may be dealt with pursuant to the Legal Profession Act 2007.

It is only through awareness and, where necessary, an appropriate disciplinary response, that professional standards can be upheld, and public confidence in the legal profession and the administration of justice can be maintained.

Bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, criminal, or other potential misconduct should also be reported to the relevant authority.

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you are feeling unsafe right now, call 000.

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