Victim of sexual harassment successfully defends appeal by former employer in landmark decision of Full Court of Federal Court of Australia

The Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia has unanimously dismissed an appeal by former Solicitor, Owen Hughes of Beesley & Hughes Lawyers in Bangalow NSW, in his attempt to overturn orders made by Judge Vasta in the Federal Circuit Court on 24 May 2019.

The Respondent, Ms Hill, had commenced proceedings against Mr Hughes for breaches of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) resulting from a sequence of incidents that occurred during her employment with Mr Hughes in 2016. In his judgment, Vasta J described the acts of Mr Hughes as “a very grave example of sexual harassment” and awarded Ms Hill $170,000 in damages, including the sum of $50,000 in aggravated damages.

The Appeal was heard by the Full Court on 13 November 2019. The judgement by Justice Perram, to whom Justice’s Collier and Reeves agreed, “emphatically” dismissed the appeal.

Nathan Job, solicitor at Somerville Laundry Lomax, who acted for Ms Hill, says the decision of the Full Court provides a reassurance to victims of sexual harassment evincing the higher ‘objective’ and ‘reasonable’ standards expected by the community with respect to such conduct and notes the difficult position that victims of such conduct can be placed, referring to the Full Court’s statement in its decision:

“The Respondent is entitled to have it recorded that the Appellant’s abuse of the power he held is the cause of these problems and not any weakness in her. She has been wronged, badly, by the unlawful actions of her employer”.

This decision not only warns of the consequences of “repeated and self-indulgent actions” committed by individuals, but also to employers, to whom are vicariously liable for the pernicious actions of their employee’s within the workplace. The Court’s consideration and perhaps extension of the principles applied in Oracle (Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd [2014] FCAFC 82) enunciate the monetary value incidental to the worth of one’s “quality of life.”

Somerville Laundry Lomax Solicitors represented Ms Hill in both the proceedings in the Federal Circuit Court of Australian and the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia.

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