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Corbell seeks forum for complaints

Date

Louis Andrews

Simon Corbell.

Simon Corbell. Photo: Colleen Petch

The ACT government wants more discretion into the way it handles complaints against judges and magistrates, responding to calls from Canberra lawyers.

Attorney-General Simon Corbell on Monday issued a discussion paper after criticisms about the regime being ''a sledgehammer to crack a walnut'' in some cases.

Mr Corbell said the governing law, the Judicial Commissions Act, was ''too narrow'' to give the government the discretion it needed.

''Currently, when a serious complaint is made in cases where there is the potential to recommend the removal of a judicial officer, a judicial commission must be established to examine the claim and there is currently no legislative framework for handling less serious complaints,'' he said.

In April, the ACT Law Society wrote to the government urging a review of the situation. A formal complaint to the attorney-general about a judicial officer can only be dealt with by dismissal or convening a judicial commission.

In May, the society's chief executive, Larry King, said the government needed the power to handle complaints about rude or slow magistrates and judges without resorting to a judicial commission.

''[A judicial commission] is a sledgehammer to crack a walnut if all we're complaining about is courtesy from the bench or a lack of efficiency,'' he said.

''These are not hanging offences.''

On Monday, Bar Association president Greg Stretton, SC, said concerns about the scope of the disciplinary regime were ''entirely valid''. He said it had no mechanism to deal with complaints not serious enough to justify a judicial commission.

A judicial commission has the power to recommend the sacking of a judicial officer in extreme cases.

But a member of the judiciary can only be removed from office if a commission made up of three judges says the circumstances warrant dismissal and the Assembly agrees.

Such a commission has only been established once in Canberra, when former chief magistrate Ron Cahill was investigated for allegedly attempting to pervert the course of justice. The commission, which only investigates sitting judicial officers, was disbanded when Mr Cahill resigned due to health reasons. The office of the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to prosecute Mr Cahill.

Monday's discussion paper is up for comment until March.

It also explores giving express powers to the heads of jurisdictions, like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to manage the workload of their colleagues.

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