Court orders Bangalow solicitor to pay $170k to employee over ‘relentless’ sexual harassment

Paul Bibby

The principal solicitor of a law firm in Bangalow has been found to have engaged in ‘relentless’ sexual harassment by the Federal Circuit Court, and has been ordered to pay $170,000 in damages.

Owen Hughes of the firm Beesley and Hughes was found to have made ‘numerous sexual advances’ toward his paralegal, single mother Catherine Hill, after she began working for the firm in 2015.

In a stinging judgment, Judge Salvatore Vasta accepted Ms Hill’s evidence that she had been repeatedly harassed through a ‘bombardment’ of emails and physical advances.

This included Mr Hughes coming into her room during a work trip in his underwear, and coercing her into hugging him by blocking her path while in the office.

‘The actions seen here, embedded in sexual inequality, are actions of the sort that the Act seeks to address,’ Judge Vasta found.

‘It would seem that the Respondent [Mr Hughes] is attempting to differentiate an advance that is nothing more than sexual in nature against his proposal of a deeper, loving relationship.

‘The distinction advanced reflects a social myopia on the part of the Respondent that, thankfully, is not reflected in the Act. The Act does not allow for any such distinction.’

The judge found that the relationship Mr Hughes wished the Applicant to enter was one that was ‘clearly sexual in nature’ and ‘could not have been anything other than deeply distressing for a woman in the situation in which the Applicant found herself’.

‘The fact that the Respondent might view his actions as merely “romantic” does not detract from the fact that his actions were, to this Applicant, a daily nightmare that occurred because this Respondent, as a man, was targeting her, sexually, as a woman and as his inferior.’

Ms Hill’s ‘personality profile’ had been ‘significantly and adversely impacted’ as a consequence of the harassment which had inhibited her social relationships, as well as her general enjoyment of life.

The Court heard that Ms Hills requires ongoing psychological counselling and treatment and will require such counselling in the future.

Judge Vasta ordered Mr Hughes to pay damages and aggravated damages totalling $170,000.

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