Federal Circuit Court judge silently steps down after sexual misconduct findings

An internal court inquiry has confirmed that Parramatta judge Joe Harman harassed two women

Federal Circuit Court judge silently steps down after sexual misconduct findings

Federal Circuit Court Judge Joe Harman has silently stepped down from the bench after an internal court inquiry found him to be guilty of sexual harassment.

The Parramatta-based judge, who concentrated on family law matters, had been at the centre of two complaints made by two women last year – a former junior court employee who had worked closely with Harman at the registry and a former law student, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Harman went on leave last August after the first complaint was filed by the ex-employee in July 2020, and resigned as judge effective midnight on 30 June.

According to the AFR, the resignation was a move to duck a possible parliamentary inquiry that could have resulted in Harman being the first federal judge to be dismissed from office.

Federal Circuit Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren commissioned an inquiry into Harman’s behaviour following the initial complaint last year. Accusations of sexual misconduct by Harman went as far back as 2015 and reoccurred in 2016, 2019 and 2020, according to a statement by the court’s conduct committee.

The committee discovered that Harman had sent several inappropriate emails to the ex-employee and initiated “unwelcome hugs.” According to the Herald, the ex-employee’s solicitor, Josh Bornstein, claimed that although she had issued a verbal complaint to court management, the ex-employee had essentially been informed that Harman’s status as a judge prevented much action from being taken against him.

The former employee proceeded to recruit Bornstein as a legal advisor, who then wrote to the court asking that an internal inquiry be made into Harman’s behaviour. Bornstein said that the former employee has been on extended mental health leave following the harassment incidents.

The conduct committee said in its statement that it had found the complaints to be substantiated, and that Harman had “engaged in conduct towards each complainant that was sexualised in nature and otherwise inappropriate.”

Harman offered medical evidence after the committee presented its initial report to Alstergren in April. However, the committee declared that “neither the judge’s medical condition nor his workload could justify or excuse his inappropriate conduct towards either of the complainants.”

The conduct committee issued a recommendation that the complaints be referred to Attorney-General Michaelia Cash for consideration, and for Alstergren to conduct a further probe into whether Harman had harassed any others.

The committee comprised former Supreme Court judges David Habersberger QC, Katharine Williams QC and Julie Dodds-Streeton QC, who led the inquiry. Industrial law barrister Tessa Duthie was the assisting counsel.

Alstergren issued apologies to the complainants, and condemned Harman’s behaviour as “totally unacceptable and inexcusable” in a statement.

“[Harman’s] conduct is of great concern to the court, as is the harm caused to these young women. 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 in respect to each of the complainants,” the chief judge said.

Alstergren confirmed that the court had tapped Corrs Chambers Westgarth board chair Stephen Price to conduct further investigation into Harman’s conduct, according to the AFR. The court has also examined its complaints service, and its judges were required to attend a judicial misconduct presentation, as per the Herald.

In a statement published by the Herald, Bornstein applauded the court’s action.

“The Federal Circuit Court should be commended for making this matter public and showing that this sort of behaviour by judges will not be tolerated,” he said. “My client hopes that other victims of sexual harassment will be encouraged to come forward now that courts have shown they will properly investigate complaints and hold judges to account for their misconduct.”

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