Owen Hughes leaving Federal court, Brisbane. Photographer: Liam Kidston.
Owen Hughes leaving Federal court, Brisbane. Photographer: Liam Kidston.

Lawyer loses appeal against sexual harassment verdict

THE defence for a Bangalow solicitor who sexually harassed a staff member likened his behaviour to that of a fictional Jane Austen character, a court has heard.

Owen Hughes, based at Beesley and Hughes Lawyers at the time of the matters in question, was last year sued for sexual harassment by former employee Catherine Mia Hill before the Federal Circuit Court.

Mr Hughes denied wrongdoing but Judge Salvatore Vasta found the lawyer had sexually harassed Ms Hill and ordered him to pay her $170,000 in damages.

Mr Hughes then lodged an appeal against both the findings and the damages awarded.

But a panel of three judges have upheld the original findings and order after a Federal Court of Australia hearing.

In the original hearing, Ms Hill claimed Mr Hughes repeatedly proposed a relationship, subjected her to uninvited hugging and twice entered her bedroom while on a Sydney work trip after he hired her as a paralegal in May, 2015.

In the July 24, 2020 judgment following the appeal hearing Justice Nye Perram said it was an "understatement" to say Mr Hughes' conduct during the trial was "reprehensible".

Mr Hughes' defence argued he behaved the way he did because "he was to be seen as being … like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice".

The defence also argued the $120,000 in damages was "manifestly excessive" and Justice Perram rejected these submissions.

"The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be," he said.

He said the way Mr Hughes used privileged information - gleaned during a period when he acted as Ms Hill's lawyer - in an attempt to tar her character in the trial was "a gross breach of his professional obligations as a solicitor".

The appeal was dismissed and the parties were given two weeks to submit written submissions on whether, and how, costs should be awarded.

It's understood Ms Hill, 56, is now working as a legal practitioner.

A hearing on Mr Hughes' bankruptcy petition is meanwhile set to go before the Federal Court on September 3.