Former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed associates, inquiry finds

One of the nation’s most respected legal minds, former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, sexually harassed six young female associates according to an independent inquiry with offers of champagne, unwanted kisses and compliments.

The High Court said in a statement on Monday afternoon that it was “ashamed” by the findings and the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel had spoken to the six women involved to offer an apology.

“We’re ashamed that this could have happened at the High Court of Australia,” the Chief Justice said.

“We have 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. I have also valued their insights and suggestions for change that they have shared with the Court.”

But Mr Heydon, 77, maintains that any conduct that caused offence was “inadvertent and unintended” and has denied any predatory behaviour towards associates.

High Court associates jobs are highly prized and generally awarded to young legal graduates with an impressive academic record.

“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 from Heydon, via his law firm Speed and Stracey, 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.

“We have asked the High Court to convey that directly to the associate complainants.”

Mr Heydon served on the High Court for a decade and was also appointed by Tony Abbott to lead The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (TURC).

The appointment followed his retirement from the High Court in 2013.

The High Court was advised last year of allegations of sexual harassment against Mr Heydon and moved swiftly to commission an independent investigation led by Vivienne Thom, the former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

The inquiry had remained confidential until today.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that two former female associates – Chelsea Tabart who worked for the High Court in 2012 and Rachael Patterson Collins who worked for his office in 2005 were among the group of six women who complained.

Ms Tabart told the newspaper that at the time she did not believe she would be safe from “powerful men like Mr Heydon even if I reported them”.

Maurice Blackburn’s employment lawyer Josh Bornstein represented the women in the lengthy investigation.

“At the time that this sexual harassment occurred, Dyson Heydon was in his 60s, a conservative judge, a prominent Catholic and a married man,” Mr Bornstein said.

“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.

“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.”

Until today, the High Court had not spoken publicly about the independent investigation.

“The Court now confirms that the subject of the investigation was the Hon Dyson Heydon AC QC. We ask that the media respect the privacy of the complainants,’” the Chief Justice said in the statement.

“The findings are of extreme concern to me, my fellow Justices, our Chief Executive and the staff of the Court.”

The independent investigation made six recommendations, including developing Human Resources policy relevant to the particular employment circumstances of the personal staff of Justices including associates, reviewing the induction it provides to associates to make sure it covers material directly relevant to their specialised role, identifying an appropriate person to form a closer working relationship with associates and check in regularly with associates.

The High Court also agreed it should clarify that the confidentiality requirements for associates relate only to the work of the Court and should make clear to associates that their duties do not extend to an obligation to attend social functions.

“There is no place for sexual harassment in any workplace. We have strengthened our policies and training to make clear the importance of a respectful workplace at the Court and we have made sure there is both support and confidential avenues for complaint if anything like this were to happen again,” the Chief Justice said.

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