A Victorian judge who has been criticised for ejecting a breastfeeding mother and her baby from his courtroom has described his actions as “self-explanatory”.
The woman was feeding her baby while observing a trial in Melbourne’s county court on Thursday when the judge addressed her directly, saying she was not permitted to breastfeed in court because it was a distraction.
The county court has declined to comment but the judge on Friday addressed the jury about the incident, saying his comments should be “self-explanatory”.
“What I [told the mother] was this – ‘Madam, you will not be permitted to breastfeed a baby in court. I’m sorry. I will have to ask you to leave. It will be a distraction for the jury at the very least’,” the judge said on Friday.
“I am telling you this because it is something that has attracted some media publicity and I think you need to know exactly what it was that I said and why I said it.
“That said, it is not a matter that you should be giving any real consideration to going forward as it is irrelevant to your task.”
The state’s attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, is expected to discuss the matter with the courts.
“These concerning reports are a matter for the county court,” a spokesperson for Symes said.
“However, no woman deserves to be shamed and humiliated for public breastfeeding.”
The minister for early childhood, Ingrid Stitt, was also asked about the incident at a press conference on Friday.
“In 2023, it’s extraordinary that this has happened at all. It’s really disappointing,” she told reporters.
“The important message for Victorian women is that we support you and your right to be able to care for your children, and if that means you have to breastfeed in a public building, then that is something that should not only be tolerated, but celebrated.”
Dr Nisha Khot, a Melbourne obstetrician, said the incident was appalling.
“We’ve tried so hard to get past so many barriers for women who want to breastfeed and to have this happen in a court of law is just not acceptable at all,” Khot said.
“Babies have been breastfed in the parliament of this country and in other parliaments. I don’t think there is any public space in which breastfeeding a baby should be unacceptable.”
She said breastfeeding had long-term implications for mother and child, so anything stopping that could affect their health.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women are protected in areas of public life, including work, schools, universities, shops or rental properties, under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act. However, it is unclear if these protections apply in court.
Courtroom rules are often left to the judge’s discretion, but there are explicit rules prohibiting eating, drinking and wearing clothing such as sunglasses and hats in court.
Judges are also immune from civil liability on the basis of promoting independence.
Emily Creak, special counsel with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, said there should not be restrictions or limitations on when or where breastfeeding occurs.
“It is not immediately clear whether existing anti-discrimination protections would extend to these circumstances – in court where a judicial officer is performing their functions,” she said in a statement.
“Regardless, for a person to be asked to leave any place (including a court) because they are breastfeeding their baby is antiquated and out of step with community expectations.”
The Parenthood’s executive director, Georgie Dent, said it was incredibly humiliating to be asked to leave somewhere because of breastfeeding.
“It creates this impression of some sort of shame around feeding your baby,” Dent said.
“If we police people for that, we just increase the isolation that mothers experience and we create a situation where breastfeeding becomes that much more difficult.”