Owen Hughes leaving the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane.
Owen Hughes leaving the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane. Liam Kidston

'Relentless' sexual harassment costs law firm boss $170K

A BANGALOW law firm boss will have to pay a former employee $170,000 compensation for repeated sexual harassment.

Catherine Mia Hill sued Owen Hughes, the principal of Beesley and Hughes Lawyers, over repeated harassment which spanned from July to October 2015.

The harassment included repeated email requests for a relationship, uninvited hugging and twice entering her bedroom while they were on a work trip in Sydney.

He denied his conduct amounted to sexual harassment, but Judge Salvatore Vasta found he "unequivocally" had in his judgment, handed down last week before the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane.

Ms Hill began working as a paralegal with Hughes' firm in May 2015.

The court heard the mother-of-two was "cognisant that there weren't many positions available for junior solicitors in the Northern Rivers region" and wasn't in a position to relocate.

She was therefore in a vulnerable position when Hughes began his "impassioned plea" for romance, during which he "intertwined the betterment of (Ms Hill's) employment ... with her commencing a relationship with him".

Ms Hill repeatedly asked her boss to cease the inappropriate messages, the court heard.

Hughes had claimed his employee was "flirty and coquettish" with him and denied she had asked him to stop throughout the course of her employment.

But the court heard Ms Hill was "forthright and honest in her evidence" while Hughes "tried to obfuscate matters a number of times and often refused to answer direct questions".

At one point, he'd blamed Champix, a medication for nicotine addiction, for his behaviour.

"(His) evidence bordered on ridiculous when he tried to blame the drug for his loss of control resulting in him writing what he wrote in the various emails to the applicant," Judge Vasta said.

"His eventual evidence was that the drug caused him to be "not in control" in the mornings before work and again after work, but allowed him to be "in control" during the working hours."

Judge Vasta said Hughes, as a solicitor, "not only should know the law, but should conduct himself in a very high standard befitting of his position in society".

"Notwithstanding that (Hughes) considers the behaviour as lacking seriousness, it is my view that the conduct of the respondent is a very grave example of sexual harassment," he said.

He said the harassment was "relentless" and the way Hughes had used private information he obtained while acting as her solicitor in an unrelated matter "for the sole purpose of blackening (her name) in these proceedings" was "despicable".

Ms Hill's solicitor, Nathan Job from Somerville Laundry Lomax, said his client was pleased with the result.

"Most importantly Ms Hill is hopeful that the decision sends a clear message that sexual harassment, in any form, will not be tolerated and that employers should ensure that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to prevent and stop such conduct occurring in the workplace," Mr Job said.

Note: Mr Hughes has indicated he intends to appeal the court's decision in this matter.