Catherine Hill leaving court in Brisbane. Picture: Liam Kidston.
Catherine Hill leaving court in Brisbane. Picture: Liam Kidston.

Lawyer’s excuse for alleged sex harassment

THE boss of a law firm who is accused of threatening his staffer if she turned him down for sex, has blamed his actions on a quit-smoking drug.

Owen Hughes, principal solicitor at Northern NSW law firm, Beesley and Hughes, told the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane yesterday that he lost control of his emotions on two days in October 2015, due to taking the drug, Champix.

He claimed it was then he sent emails to his employee, recently qualified lawyer Catherine Mia Hill.

He sent 11 non-work related emails to the now 54-year-old on October 12, 2015, the court heard.

Mr Hughes - who is facing a possible $100,000 damages order - told Judge Salvatore Vasta the effect of the drug on him meant he was "out of control" before he went to work, but in control when he was working, then out of control again when he finished work and sent emails to Ms Hill.

"Do you understand how ridiculous what you have just said sounds Mr Hughes?" Judge Vasta asked him, saying it "would be a wonder drug".

"It effects your mood and effects it very quickly, it's not something that I should ever have taken," Mr Hughes replied.

In later evidence Mr Hughes said that the drug had magnified his "heartstruck" feelings "ten-fold". Mr Hughes agreed under cross examination that he was not arguing that because he couldn't control himself that he was not responsible for his actions.

Owen Hughes outside court in Brisbane. Picture: Liam Kidston.
Owen Hughes outside court in Brisbane. Picture: Liam Kidston.

Ms Hill, a mother, has sued Mr Hughes, 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 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.

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

Melissa Campbell, who worked with both Ms Hill and Mr Hughes at the law firm told the court that she "didn't have a concern thinking he is a sexual predator, not at all."

"He is very friendly in a sweet, bumbling sort of way … he is a bit eccentric," she told the court.

She said she had seen no signs of harassment when she worked with the pair or visited the office.

One email Mr Hughes sent Ms Hill was 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.

Ms Hill has asked the court for more than $100,000 damages for pain, loss and suffering as well as distress and humiliation for the psychological injury she claims was caused by Mr Hughes' harassment.

She has also asked for $5000 in economic losses, and the costs of her psychological treatment.

She is now living in Canberra and working remotely for Gold Coast law firm James McConvill and Associates, the court was told.

Judge Salvatore Vasta has reserved his decision on whether Mr Hughes sexually harassed Ms Hill. It will be handed down by May 10.