ACT News

Simon Corbell to introduce bill to hold judges and magistrates accountable

A bill to establish a judicial council capable of holding judges and magistrates accountable and responding to public complaints will be introduced by Attorney-General Simon Corbell, who says such a council would be a very important reform.

ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell.
ACT Attorney-General Simon Corbell. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Attorney-General Simon Corbell will introduce a bill on Thursday to establish a judicial council capable of holding judges and magistrates accountable and responding to public complaints.

Mr Corbell said the establishment of a judicial council was a "very important reform" as there was no mechanism to deal with complaints against judicial figures other than an inquiry to determine whether they should be removed from office.

But the Attorney-General said the transparency of any council would be determined by those who preside over it rather than the government, with details of sitting terms and expenditure still to be confirmed.  

"Those will be matters for the judicial council itself as they are an independent body and will need to make a decision themselves as to how information is disseminated," he said.

Mr Corbell has proposed the council include the Chief Justice, Chief Magistrate, and senior members of the legal profession and the public who would be picked by the government.

"We already have a mechanism to deal with the most important type of complaints through a judicial commission but what we don't have is a mechanism to deal with any other complaints that should be addressed," he said.

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The Attorney-General said the establishment of a judicial council was not a new idea and the proposed reform had been debated during the 2012 election.

"We have had detailed consultation with judicial officers, magistrates and judges as well as the Law Society and the Bar Association," he said.

The ACT Bar Association confirmed it had been consulted in relation to the plan and awaited the final terms with interest.

In 2012, the ACT Law Society wrote to the government urging a review of the situation and the ACT Bar Association described concerns about the disciplinary regime as "entirely valid". 

If established, the council would respond to a range of complaints not currently addressed by an independent body in the ACT, particularly the continued postponement of cases.

"Complaints can be made about a range of aspects of performance and include delays through to simple matters such as the behaviour of judicial officers in court and whether they approach their tasks in a polite and appropriate manner," said Mr Corbell.

"They can involve more serious matters such as allegations of not paying proper attention to matters."

The Attorney-General said the proposed council would have the power to receive, report, and investigate complaints and to take appropriate action. 

"If it is warranted, the judicial council can make a recommendation to establish a judicial commission," he said.

The last time a commission was ordered in Canberra was before the resignation of former chief magistrate Ron Cahill in 2009.

Mr Corbell ordered the review over allegations Mr Cahill gave a background briefing to a visiting magistrate hearing an ACT case.

But the veteran magistrate's resignation for health reasons scuttled the commission, which can only investigate serving judicial officers.

"The new regime preserves the judicial commission process, but formalises an effective process for managing complaints that don't merit consideration of removal from office," said Mr Corbell.

The government will also propose the head of each court jurisdiction be granted the power to refer a judicial officer for medical or psychological examination in the case of any suspected impairment.

The bill will also establish provisions for the Attorney-General to deal with complaints made against presidential members of the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

"Strengthening mechanisms for addressing complaints will increase transparency and accountability, while maintaining judicial independence and promoting community confidence in the justice system," said Mr Corbell

"Most other jurisdictions do have some form of judicial complaints mechanism and some have a formal council like in NSW.

"The ACT community deserves a justice system which is accountable, responsive and effective."