Taming the scourge of sexual harassment in the legal profession

In this piece, our Correspondent, Kehinde Osasona, examines a 2018 global survey of lawyers by the International Bar Association (IBA) on sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession and various complaints by lawyers in Nigeria on the same subject to advise that time has come for NBA to give the scourge a centre stage attention.

Global survey

For about a decade now or more, complaints of sexual harassment and bullying among legal practitioners in various legal communities in the world are becoming loud.

Lately, the umbrella body of lawyers—International Bar Association (IBA), based in the United Kingdom, got so worried over the scourge that it commissioned a global survey in 2018.

The survey was set out to establish the existence of the scourge, its true nature and rampancy in the legal profession.

IBA worked with a market research company—Acritas, to conduct the survey.

The study which was described as the largest-ever global survey sampled opinions of nearly 7,000 respondents from 135 countries from across the spectrum of legal workplaces like law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary.

The study found that one in three female respondents had been sexually harassed in a workplace context, as had one in 14 male respondents.

The survey also found Britain as a place where bullying, sexual harassment and other related behaviours are most prevalent.

According to the survey, the frequency of sexual harassment in the UK is closer to the global average, with 38% of female and 6% of male respondents reporting they had been affected.

The report added that the levels of bullying in the UK are above the international average.

The study further noted that 62% of female respondents and 41% of male respondents confirmed that they had been bullied in connection with their employment.

By comparison, the international averages were 55% and 30% respectively.

Meanwhile, higher levels of sexual harassment and bullying were also recorded by the survey in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Worried by the spate at which the scourge is ravaging the legal community, the President of the International Bar Association (IBA) Horacio Bernardes Neto advised attorneys to get their own hiring and workplace behaviour in order, saying that the risk is being called out for hypocrisy.

Neto explained that the study provided the first global proof that “bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession”.

He said: “Following the global #MeToo Movement, the legal profession has regularly been called upon to advise other sectors on these issues.

“Our ability to advise effectively and drive broader societal change is undermined if we do not address the risk of hypocrisy.

“If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character.

“Addressing the widespread bullying and sexual harassment among us is an important step in safeguarding the long-term vitality of this essential profession.”

Do sexual harassment and bullying exist in Nigerian legal profession?

Although no empirical survey has been conducted in Nigeria, it appears the scourge may not only be real in Nigeria but also on the high side.

This is because at a technical session of a conference organised by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), titled: “Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Community”, lawyers said the scourge not only exists but also on the increase.

For instance, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mia Essien, expressed her dissatisfaction at what she called a dangerous silence of lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) over sexual assault and bullying in the profession.

Essien is the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Section on Legal Practice (NBA-LP).

She said that sexual harassment of female lawyers by their senior colleagues was not only real but also on the increase.

According to Essien, there were situations where senior lawyers would travel with junior female colleagues without making hotel reservations for such junior colleagues.

She alleged that such female lawyers ended up in the rooms of their principals, who deliberately did so to sexually exploit them.

Essien explained that though the RPC talks about ethical conduct for legal practitioners, yet, it is silent about sexual harassment or bullying of lawyers.

“I urge the NBA to ensure an amendment of the RPC to reflect these issues,” she said.

The senior advocate also discussed bullying as another side of the coin with which senior lawyers transact business with their junior colleagues.

Essien however said that there is a difference between bullying and correction of a junior colleague, which she described as a key element of legal practice.

Lawyers according to her were expected to know that sexual harassment and bullying were condemnable and thus, should conduct themselves in the most ethical manner.

“It is important to be courteous as a lawyer; courtesy demands that you offer your seat to a senior colleague who is standing up in court, and also to speak with respect to senior lawyers,” she added.

More revelations

Also at the forum, another lawyer, Ogaga Emoghwaren described sexual harassment as an unsolicited, unwelcomed, and unexpected sexual advances to elicit unwanted sexual relationship.

Ogaga said that although sexual harassment of lawyers by their senior colleagues in courtrooms was not common, there existed sexual harassment in law firms.

“I encountered a situation where a young female lawyer ran out of her principal’s office crying. When I interrogated her, she described her principal as a beast who just raped her,” he said.

The unwillingness of victims to open up according to Ogaga, has made sexual harassment and abuse to be increasing.

He also blamed the situation on poor enforcement of laws against sexual abuse

He noted further that the young female lawyer who was allegedly raped, refused to formally complain for fear of sack.

“Although there is a law criminalizing the offence of rape; more proactive measures must be put in place to tackle the menace,” he noted.

For Assam Assam, also a panelist in the session, he agreed with earlier speakers that while sexual harassment is common in law firms, he added that bullying mostly thrives in courtrooms and more commonly deployed by judges against lawyers and themselves.

She said, “I encountered a scenario where two members of the bench sitting on appeal, engaged in a face-off and rained abuses on each other before a full courtroom,”

According to him, some judges bully lawyers appearing before them.

“For a person to be appointed a judge, he must be psychologically checked,” he said.

Citing low exposure as bane in curtailing the scourge

To Awulika Osuigwe, also a panelist, she attributed low level of exposure of such malaise as bane, saying that sexual molestation in workplaces had been going on unnoticed for sometimes.

She nevertheless advised that female lawyers should report acts such as spanking of their buttocks by men.

On bullying at the workplace, she described it as gender discrimination, claiming that it was mostly done against females, most of who were not afforded opportunities like their male counterparts.

 “Sometimes, a principal will prefer to take a trip with a male colleague, and the excuse is that the female may not be intellectually capable.

“In some places, married women are given specific periods for pregnancy, if they must keep their jobs,” she said.

Osuigwe described the acts as gender bias, calling for a change of attitude by employees and superiors.

Addressing the scourge, the NBA President, Paul Usoro (SAN) raised a poser: Will it be enough to just make complaints about sexual harassment for measures to be taken?

Many stakeholders are, however, of the opinion that exposing the culprits would not only help stem the scourge but also nip it in the bud.

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