Bid to bankrupt boss over sex harassment

A LAWYER who was found to have sexually harassed his female employee with "relentless" attempts "to woo" her, in a way described as "particularly sinister" by a judge, is facing bankruptcy over failure to pay court-awarded damages.

Owen Hughes, 58, principal solicitor at Northern NSW law firm, Beesley and Hughes, is the subject of bankruptcy proceedings brought by his former staffer Catherine Mia Hill, 54, over $170,000 he was ordered to pay her in a May 24 decision by Federal Circuit Court judge Sal Vasta.

Mr Hughes filed an appeal of Judge Vasta's decision in June, asking the decision finding the claims of sexual harassment proven be set aside.

On January 16, Ms Hill filed a creditor's petition in the Federal Court which states that Mr Hill "committed an act of bankruptcy" by failing to comply with a bankruptcy notice served on him on June 28.

Owen Hughes. Picture: David Clark/AAP
Owen Hughes. Picture: David Clark/AAP

The $170,000 damages bill includes $120,000 for general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages, because Judge Vasta found that Mr Hughes attempted to stop Ms Hill making a complaint of sexual harassment.

Ms Hill, who worked with Mr Hughes during her first job in the legal industry, sued him claiming he sexually harassed her by pressuring her to "be in a relationship with him" if she wanted to keep her job.

She told the court during a hearing in Brisbane in March that she was "intimidated or threatened" by Mr Hughes and believed he wanted a sexual relationship and for her to live with him when she worked for him between May 2015 and June 2016 - when she quit.

She said Mr Hughes was in her bedroom, dressed in his boxer shorts, when she went to go to bed during a trip.

Ms Hill claimed she made it clear she wasn't interested in a relationship with him, but Mr Hughes denied sexually harassing Ms Hill, and argues he didn't reduce her work hours after she rejected his advances.

Mr Hughes conceded sending her non-work related emails, including one titled: "Expressing my feelings is not harassment".

In the emails he told her: "If you and I were together we would change the world" and "we are dynamite together"

"I am a wild and passionate man so you will be justly rewarded" he told her in an email.

"You have touched my heart like no other", he wrote.

"I want to be your lover and I do not know how to be friends with you," he told her via email.

Judge Vasta found that Mr Hughes' emails "speak for themselves but it is the intertwining of" Ms Hill's job and Mr Hughes' desire for a sexual relationship "that is particularly sinister". "The threats that he made would have been extremely distressing," Judge Vasta noted in his decision.

"While I accept that there was nothing crude, vulgar or lascivious about the harassment, nevertheless it was obviously unwarranted, persistent and threatening."

Mr Hughes told The Courier-Mail outside court that the decision has ruined his life and triggered him to put his career on hold.

Ms Hill and Mr Hughes are awaiting judgment of the appeal Mr Hughes is fighting in the Full Federal Court.

Three judges heard the case on November 13 and adjourned the case, reserving judgment to an unspecified date.

Ms Hill's bankruptcy bid is due in the Federal Court for hearing on March 12.

 

 

 

 

Catherine Hill. Picture: Liam Kidston.
Catherine Hill. Picture: Liam Kidston.