Bullying is set to become a crime for the first time in Australia as concern grows at the rise of abuse that has destroyed lives and driven workers and teenagers to suicide.
Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark is expected to introduce amendments to stalking laws in the state Parliament tomorrow, placing workplace and cyber bullying under the Crimes Act.
The new legislation will provide penalties of up to 10 years' jail.
It follows the 2006 suicide of 19-year-old cafe worker Brodie Panlock, who was subjected to "merciless" bullying by four colleagues at Melbourne's Cafe Vamp.
She was abused, spat upon, had fish oil poured over her and, after one failed suicide attempt, was laughed at and advised to try rat poison before jumping from a multi-storey carpark.
Her abusers, head waiter Nicholas Smallwood and waiter Rhys MacAlpine, with chef Gabriel Toomey and cafe owner Marc Da Cruz, were fined A$337,000 ($432,337) under occupational health and safety laws in what the dead woman's father, Damian Panlock, described as a "slap on the wrist".
No criminal charges were brought because bullying is not a crime anywhere in Australia, and is instead covered by workplace, compensation, discrimination and similar legislation.
Last year a Sydney security guard was awarded a record A$1.9 million in damages after bullying that included threats of violence, financial penalties, racial and sexual abuse, and excessive and unpaid working hours.
But until Victoria's new move, governments have been reluctant to include serious bullying in criminal law, despite research estimating that one in four employees is likely to suffer from it at some stage.
Workplace bullying is also estimated to cost Australia between A$17 billion and A$36 billion a year in lost productivity, damage to mental health and staff turnover.
The new Victorian legislation will also cover cyber-bullying, another area of increasing concern, especially among teenage students.
Last year Victorian police used stalking laws to convict a 21-year-old man who hounded a teenager to suicide - but the cyber-bully was sentenced only to community service.
A three-year survey of 16,000 children by Edith Cowan University found that during the period of the study the number of victims grew from 15 to 25 per cent of respondents.
Clark said yesterday that under the new legislation - already known as "Brodie's law" - serious bullying would be treated as a crime if it could cause someone physical or mental harm.
Mr Panlock told a press conference yesterday that the new law was better late than never.
"If someone else can be protected from scum like these people, and they know that they are going to be charged, and they are going to have jail time, they might think twice," said Mr Panlock.