Push to make sexual harassment a criminal offence

Push to make sexual harassment a criminal offence

Senior staff reporter

Saturday, November 21, 2020

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Legislators are being asked to consider making sexual harassment a criminal offence.

Attorney-at-law and tutor at Norman Manley Law School (NMLS) Karen Seymour Johnson raised the point Thursday at a meeting of the joint select committee of Parliament which is now deliberating on changes to the Sexual Harassment Act of 2019.

“Sexual harassment goes deeper than what we are contemplating and many times results in violence and death. They [victims] just want the conduct to stop; oftentimes the perpetrators are persons of great wealth, power or influence and are only deterred by the threat of criminal sanctions, hence the call for sexual harassment to be criminalised,” she explained.

According to Seymour Johnson, some countries within and outside the region, including Barbados, The Bahamas, and the United Kingdom, have already criminalised sexual harassment.

“In fact, in relation to the Protection of Freedoms Act [UK] there is a provision for both criminal and civil remedies in court for the offence,” she argued.

She said NMLS was asking that when the time comes to overhaul the Sexual Offences Act, that some consideration be given to include the act of stalking, if it is that the Sexual Harassment Bill will not criminalise the act.

Seymour Johnson further urged that the Bill should be comprehensive in its scope to protect workers at any level from sexual harassment during the course of their employment.

“It is recognised that Parliament, in drafting the Bill, sought to address sexual harassment in the context within the work environment, and the various institutions being contemplated at this time, [but] we urge the committee to consider the harmful effects of sexual harassment, not only in the context of the workplace,” she stressed.

In her remarks on the submission, Government Senator Kamina Johnson Smith noted that perhaps there was need for the legislation to be clearer on the context in which the law is to be applied, as the Bill was now being viewed as intended to widely cover the act of sexual harassment.

“I think much of the discussion is taking place in the context where we don't have a criminal act of harassment... we have been quite clear that the sexual Offences Against the Person Act needs to be amended to have a criminal act of harassment that takes place at large... the challenge that we are having is that some of the discussions that we are having is as a result of an expectation that the Sexual Harassment Act, which is really supposed to deal with that workplace environment, is now being viewed as at large. It's something that the committee is going to have to think about very deeply... it may very well be that we need to be clearer,” she asserted.

Johnson Smith also cautioned against a potential situation where the scope of the Act is so broad that it puts the sexual harassment tribunal in a position where it is unable to effectively address the types of matters which come before it.

Additionally, the law school said that while it may be advisable for a complainant to seek to exhaust internal mechanisms before lodging a complaint to the tribunal, the mechanism indicated in the Bill may require considerable time, especially in cases where there are more than one complainants against a single offender.

“This could result in a complaint being ruled out of time and would be unjust,” the law school said in its submission.

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