On 31 May, 2011 the Victorian Parliament passed the Crimes Amendment (Bullying) Act 2011, referred to in the media as “Brodie’s Law”, amending the Crimes Act 1958. The purpose of the law was to alter the crime of stalking to include behaviour that is generally characterised as bullying.
The law was developed in response to the case of Brodie Panlock, a 19 year-old woman who committed suicide after being severely bullied at work. Ms Panlock worked as a waitress at Café Vamp in Hawthorn from early 2005 until her death in September 2006. In that time, Brodie was subjected to recurring verbal and physical acts of bullying.
Her employer and several of its staff were fined under the existing occupational health and safety (“OHS”) laws. Brodie’s employer pleaded guilty and was fined $220,000. The company’s owner and three co-workers also pleaded guilty and were fined between $10,000 and $45,000 each. Brodie’s parents have since campaigned strongly to have Victorian law altered so that bullying behaviour can be punished by terms of imprisonment.
The new law
In the past, the definition of stalking included acts such as communicating with a victim via post or electronic devices, writing about a victim on the internet, following the victim, or keeping them under surveillance. The following has now been added to the definition of stalking:
Making threats to the victim; Using abusive or offensive words to or in the presence of the victim; Performing abusive or offensive acts in the presence of the victim; Directing abusive or offensive acts towards the victim; and Acting in any other way that could reasonably be expected:
- To cause physical or mental harm to the victim, including self-harm; or
- To arouse apprehension or fear in the victim for his or her own safety or that of any other person.
The definition of “Mental harm” includes psychological harm and suicidal thoughts.
These are very broad categories that cover a wide range of actions that could easily cover behaviour which occurs in the workplace.
Effect on Victorian employers
The new law applies throughout Victoria including, but not limited to, workplaces. If an employee or Director aids and/or is complicit in the bullying they could be held responsible for the conduct of other employees under the new stalking law. Prosecution of a worker under the Crimes Act will not prevent employers from being prosecuted and fined under the OHS laws.
Employers are advised to implement policies and training and to monitor behaviour to prevent bullying in the workplace. Under the new laws employers must be proactive and educate workers of the consequences they face for bullying their co-workers. Employees who engage in bullying and Managers or other employees who are aware of the bullying and aid or are complicit could face terms of imprisonment of up to 10 years under the new changes.
The new law does not affect states other than Victoria. However, Brodie Panlock’s parents indicated upon the passage of “Brodie’s Law” that they would be taking their campaign to federal Members of Parliament, who have power to make laws for the regulation of corporations. It is possible that new obligations could be imposed upon corporations nationally to prevent bullying in the workplace. Whether that will occur or what shape such legislation will take remains to be seen. Russell Kennedy will continue to monitor developments in this area.
The links below will take you to our recent article on the changes to the OHS laws to commence on 1 January, 2012 and to our offer to provide a tailored seminar and health check at your workplace.
If you'd like to keep updated with Russell Kennedy's insights, please sign up here.