ACT News


Angry barristers target Refshauge

Barristers fed up with lengthy delays in the handing down of reserved judgments have taken the extraordinary step of making a formal complaint about a Canberra judge.

The ACT Bar Association's complaint to Attorney-General Simon Corbell leaves the minister with just two options - dismiss it or order a judicial commission.

Neither the association nor Mr Corbell released the name of the subject of the complaint, but The Canberra Times has learnt it is Justice Richard Refshauge.

The unprecedented move against Justice Refshauge demonstrates how dire the crisis in the ACT Supreme Court has become, despite the recent blitz on the court lists.

The ACT Law Society, while not backing the complaint, has said it is seeking ''urgent remedial action'' about the state of reserved judgments generally.

Both groups have written numerous letters to the courts urging judicial officers to hurry up and pass judgment.


Criminal trials are being listed as far away as mid-2014, and lawyers have for years complained of civil litigants waiting in limbo for judgments years in the making.

A former public servant, Martin Guy, receiving cancer treatment and anxious about his court case, had his superannuation fight re-listed twice before Justice Refshauge before the judge indicated this month he intended to find in his favour.

Justice Refshauge, a former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, was appointed a judge in late 2007 after a legal career spanning 30 years.

But it is understood his current civil caseload includes more than 20 decisions reserved for longer than 18 months.

One is more than four years old. Six are Commonwealth superannuation matters which were heard and reserved in 2009 and 2010, including Mr Guy's case.

The territory's all-or-nothing judicial complaints regime means if Mr Corbell is satisfied the complaint, if proved, could justify the judge's removal he must appoint a commission. The panel of three judges is the only way a judge or magistrate can be removed from office.

Only one such commission has ever been formed - in 2009, when former chief magistrate Ron Cahill was investigated for allegedly attempting to pervert the course of justice. Mr Cahill, who denied the allegation, resigned for health reasons, dissolving the commission before its work began, and the prosecution declined to pursue the matter.

Criminologist David Biles this week said two new judges were required to give the current bench the ''breathing space'' to work through reserved judgments.

Bar Association president Greg Stretton, SC, said there was ''certainly a good case'' for at least one more judge. It was ''certainly not'' acceptable for a judgment to be reserved for more than four years.

Mr Stretton also said the association had lodged a complaint about a judge with Mr Corbell, but said he was unable to comment further.

''The ACT Attorney-General must decide whether the complaint has substance and whether and how it is to be dealt with,'' he said.

Mr Stretton said while not all Canberra judges were slow in handing down judgments the ACT bench, in a small jurisdiction with a heavy workload, faced ''significant pressures'' causing delays not seen interstate.

''Personality traits and experience can [also] be personal factors involved,'' Mr Stretton said.

Law Society president Noor Blumer said the society was not backing the complaint, but had met Chief Justice Terence Higgins and would meet Mr Corbell on Monday.

She said the society would prefer to see judges given time away from court to clear their decks, as has happened before.

''The Law Society regards a judicial commission as a last resort, but if reasonable progress has not been made in the next few months, then [the society] will seriously consider its position,'' Ms Blumer said.

Both Justice Refshauge and Chief Justice Higgins declined to comment about the complaint. But in a speech to newly admitted lawyers on Friday the Chief Justice re-iterated his long-running plea for a fifth full-time judge.