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SRC lawyers call on University to fund dedicated sexual assault solicitor as demand surges

Tom Joyner reports

Lawyers working for the SRC’s student legal service are calling on Sydney University management to fund a dedicated full-time discrimination solicitor to manage a surge in complaints of sexual harassment and assault, as student demand for legal help reaches “saturation”.

The call comes after an Honi Soit report earlier this month found there could be as many as 340 unreported sexual assaults every year at Sydney University, based on data obtained under freedom of information as well as the University’s own estimated incident reporting rate of just 1 per cent, based on a 2015 report.

Thomas McLoughlin and Annie Zeng, who provide free legal advice to students on a range of matters, say it’s time the University demonstrated real action on the issue.

“If Sydney University wants to provide leadership and wants to be ahead of the game, yes there probably would be an increase in [sexual assault and harassment] statistics, but that wouldn’t be a result of increased offending, it would be because of increased reportage,” said McLoughlin.

Demand for legal advice has grown this year as recent media coverage has sparked heightened awareness of campus sexual assault. McLoughlin and Zeng have been working overtime as a result.

“The [student] legal office has sought to deal with this as best they can, but the demands on the SRC legal office are at saturation,” said McLoughlin.

Zeng, who has worked at the SRC since 2010, said the legal team had until recently been employed part-time on a restricted budget, even as their workload has doubled on previous years.

“As more people become aware of us and what kind of service we provide here, there’s definitely been an increase of students who come get help on sensitive legal matters,” she said.

Zeng added the SRC was in dire need of more funding to pay for legal training in handling sensitive cases like sexual assault, on top of establishing another full-time dedicated solicitor position.

“Special care and attention should be provided to victims of sexual assault because they’re not only having these legal issues, but they’re also emotionally vulnerable too.”

The legal team’s proposed solicitor role would be funded by the University, but would work under the SRC’s auspices to ensure harassment and assault complaints could be dealt with at arm’s length, avoiding potential conflicts of interest.

“It’s well understood now with documentaries like The Hunting Ground, and repeated examples of misconduct at the colleges, that there is already a reputational risk for universities,” said McLoughlin.

“If there were a solicitor that was dedicated to providing that moral support, just as there is domestic violence liaison support in the courts system, that would improve the experience and the sense of safety of the female student body significantly.”

The proposed role would also handle growing incidents of online harassment over social media, as well as a role in public education, advocacy and outreach.

A spokesperson for the University did not directly address McLoughlin and Zeng’s proposal, but said relevant staff were undergoing training on handling complaints of harassment and sexual assault.

“Any sexual assault is a criminal matter and the University has a strong working relationship with NSW Police so incidents are reported appropriately,” they said.

Reporting rates of sexual crimes are disproportionately low among students for a host of reasons including inaccessible University reporting procedures and a lack of faith in authorities to take action against perpetrators.

Photo: Tom Joyner