Workplace bullying in the legal profession

Authors: Michele van Eck & Marthinus van Staden

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Associate Professor, Department of Private Law, University of Johannesburg; Associate Professor, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 140 Issue 3, p. 647-677


The International Bar Association (‘IBA’) highlighted a disturbing trend of bullying within the legal profession in its 2019 report on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession, both internationally and in South Africa. The substantive forms of bullying (often described as victimisation, discrimination, or harassment) may overlap in the manner, mode or way in which bullying is perpetrated, and how bullying occurs may be grouped into several distinct categories: overt (or direct) forms, covert (or indirect) forms and, finally, so-called ‘mobbing’. This article investigates the current South African legislative framework addressing workplace bullying, including the indirect remedies available to victims in terms of (i) a claim of harassment as a form of unfair discrimination under s 6(3) of the Employment Equity Act; (ii) a claim for constructive dismissal under s 193 of the Labour Relations Act; and (iii) unfair labour practices as a remedy for workplace bullying or a claim of harassment in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. After finding that these indirect remedies are inadequate to address workplace bullying in the legal profession, the article explores the conduct rules of the legal profession to establish how bullying is addressed in the legal sector and conducts a comparative analysis of the way in which bullying is addressed in the Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions to identify possible solutions to curb the scourge of workplace bullying in the South African legal profession.