Conflicts amongst Queensland Magistrates (2002)

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Conflict has arisen over the governance of Queensland's magistracy - resulting in inquiries into the activities of the Chief Magistrate - see published articles below.

While the author has no knowledge of the specific circumstances which have given rise to that conflict or of who may be in the right and wrong, a number of general comments will be offered below on the basis of failures which have occurred in Queensland's public administration as a consequence of politically-motivated but poorly-advised attempts at 'reform'.


Articles - in reverse date order

Judges need freedom to make decisions without interference - but Queensland's courts are taking this too far. The humiliation of the Chief magistrate has eroded the quality control and standard setting in the magistrates courts (Richards C 'Magistrates a law unto themselves', A, 13/6/03)

Queensland's chief magistrate is now in prison. Her predecessor (Payne) resigned in 1999 after holding the position for 11 years - and followed months of brawling. In 1991 the Goss Government introduced the Stipendiary Magistrate Act - which involved a separation of powers and transferring administrative power from the government to a Chief Magistrate. It also allowed external appointments - in what had previously been a closed shop. Payne resigned in conflicts over relocation of an aboriginal magistrate. The dispute with magistrates involving Fingleton also involves transfers. The case had the potential to be highly politicized as the Chief Magistrate had previously been labeled a political appointment. (Koch T 'Ugly brawling before Fingleton's fall', CM,  7/6/03)

A group of senior magistrates were convinced that Di Fingleton had to go. An unprecedented letter of no confidence was drafted as the jury retired to consider verdict in Fingleton's case. Some were terrified about what Fingleton might do if she returned to her job - and not only those who gave evidence against her (Thomas H. 'Tough justice', CM, 7/6/03)

The highest levels of Queensland's magistracy tried to oust Di Fingleton while she was on trial - with a letter having 51 out of 73 possible signatures calling for her removal (Thomas H 'Power struggle within judiciary sealed her fate', CM,  7/6/03)

Jailed Chief Magistrate is to appeal her conviction for retaliation against a witness. Political debate suggested that she had been the victim of a legal 'boys club' (Emerson S 'Finglteon victim of boys club', A,  6/6/03)

The magistracy is in chaos. The Chief Magistrate is in jail - after a dozen of her colleagues have spent weeks giving evidence against her. The court system has been shown to be torn by rivalries. One might blame Fingleton's management style for the problems that have emerged. But her predecessor had similar problems. (Oberhardt M., 'Rivalries cripple magistracy', CM, 5/6/03)

The Director of Public Prosecutions has recommended that the Chief Magistrate face charges of perverting the course of justice or retaliating against a witness (Griffiths C 'Jail threat fails to shift Fingleton, CM, 14/12/02).

Future of Queensland's Chief Magistrate is in doubt after Supreme Court Judge handed down two damning judgements against her - following a court battle that resulted from magistrates labelling her a bully and an 'appalling Chief Magistrate'. Her future now depends on the outcome of a Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation into allegations that she conspired to pervert the course of justice (Meade K 'Top legal officer's future in doubt', A, 28/11/02)

Three senior Queensland judges have publicly rebuked the Chief Magistrate for creating a climate of suspicion and distrust amongst magistrates (Wilson A. 'Judges rebuke chief magistrate', A, 12-13/10/02)

15 years ago lawyers played a central role in the process whereby Queenslanders saved themselves from a descent into authoritarian crony capitalism - and became an international leader in governance reform - through establishing entities such as CJC / CMC. Yet lawyers are now the centre of concern over governance of the Queensland magistracy. When professionals disagree, outsiders find it hard to tell what is right. There is a need for methods to  consider the legal and ethical issues involved. The issues involved in current inquiry go to the heart of how courts should be organized - and particularly related to the independence of magistrates. Who should determine whether legal and ethical rules are broken? (Sampford C. 'Eagle eyes on legal conduct', CM,  28/9/02)

The allegation against the Chief Magistrate is serious because it is regarded as a contempt of court to threaten a witness before or after giving evidence - a practice which would have the effect of discouraging other witnesses from giving evidence. This could become a matter for Director of Public Prosecutions. Confidence in the judiciary does not require that all decisions are wise - but that the justice system be based on values of independence, impartiality, integrity and professionalism. (Thomas H. 'Courtroom drama',  CM,  28/9/02)

Allegations about alleged criminality by Chief Magistrate will now be heard by a retired Supreme Court judge - because CMC lawyer, Lambrides, who was to lead inquiry has a relation who provided advice to Beenleigh magistrate, Gribbin.  Queensland's Chief Justice also stood aside in hearings related to the Chief Magistrate, because he was involved in other hearings related to her - and would gain information from the other hearing which was relevant but would not presented at the second hearing (Thomas H and Griffith C 'legal webs cause more inquiry turns',  CM,  27/9/02)

CMC Chairman (Butler) disqualified himself from inquiry into Chief Magistrate as the latter is a social acquaintance. CMC's Director of Complaints also excused herself because her partner had been involved in giving advice to Beenleigh magistrate, Gribbin and also removed herself from CMC investigation of decision by Director of Public Prosecutions decision to drop charges against swimming coach, Volkers, because her partner had also been involved in that case. The Attorney General withdrew from decisions related to ex gratia payments to Volkers, because the latter was a friend.   The DG of Justice has asked CMC to investigate alleged improper use of vehicle by Chief Magistrate. Correspondence about this had been forwarded in May with an opinion that 'no reasonable evidence existed' - but others believed that the matter was not properly investigated. Five magistrates have filed affidavits alleging that the Chief Magistrate has acted illegally or in a bullying way (Thomas H 'Crime chief steps down from Fingleton case',  CM,  25/9/02)

Queensland's Chief Magistrate (Fingleton) accused a Beenleigh coordinating magistrate (Gribbin) of disloyalty and disruption, and required evidence why he should remain in his position. This generated a crisis in the judiciary. The magistrate (vice-president of the Magistrates Association) had previously given evidence in a secret case before a judicial committee of another magistrate (Thacker) regarding the Chief Magistrate's efforts to transfer her to Emerald.  Thacker needed evidence from other magistrates but found that they would not speak out because of fear of the Chief Magistrate. Gribbin concluded that the Chief Magistrate was also facing other allegations of bullying and of acting unlawfully against a Southport Magistrate (Cornack) - and claimed that her threats constituted a potential contempt of the Supreme Court. The Chief Magistrate was appointed over 50 more senior alternatives 3 years ago. Now her career faces serious challenges. There are seething tensions in the magistracy. A movie has been made about the hardships in the Chief magistrate's upbringing. Gribbin has suggested to the CMC that QC advice suggests that the Criminal Code might apply to the actions of the Chief Magistrate. (Thomas H 'Court in crisis',  CM,  21/9/02)

Magistrates funding legal case of collegue who accuses Chief Magistrate of bullying want her powers to issue reprimands permanently stripped (Thomas H 'Judicial brawling spills on to rules',  CM,  17/9/02)

Ms Fingleton has a remarkable achievement in becoming Queensland's first female Chief Magistrate, given that she did not gain a law degree until age 35. She was leapfrogged over the heads of many male colleagues as the Attorney General pushed to bring more women to the bench. She was appointed a magistrate in 1995, a Senior Magistrate in 1998 and Chief Magistrate a year later (Mathewson C. 'Family film shows life of different strokes',  CM,  7/9/02)

Queensland's Chief Magistrate (Fingleton) has been accused of being a tyrannical 'bully' and of undermining judicial independence. Queensland magistrates are concerned about the Chief Magistrate's behaviour and are funding legal action against her. Southport magistrate, Cornack, has been on stress leave for months related to 'bullying / harassment' from Chief Magistrate. The Magistrates Association has complains about the Chief magistrate from two other magistrates - and believes a judicial review of her conduct would benefit all magistrates. Conflict arose from an informal meeting to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of resident magistrates - at which constructive criticism of Cormack was aired. Some days later she was invited to discuss her demeanor with the Chief Magistrate - a process which she interpreted as hostile, abusive, aggressive and bullying (Thomas H. 'Court split over 'bully' magistrate', CM, 7/9/02)

Comment CPDS Comments

There have been past allegations in relation to controversial judicial appointments - which implied that appointees have been seen to lack the required knowledge and experience.

By way of background it should be noted that politically driven attempts at 'reform' of Queensland's Public Service (mainly in the early 1990s) were poorly conceived and incompetently managed. Towards Good Government in Queensland  provides an account of that process, while Attachment A outlines the concerned reactions of diverse observers.

One result of this is that the Westminster tradition of an independent and professional Public Service no longer really exists in Queensland. Such a Service had been as critical to the effectiveness of Queensland's system of government as an independent and professional judiciary is, because:

  • such a Service complemented elected government. The political system must be mainly concerned with how policy 'appears' to influential interest groups, which provides few insights into whether policy can work in practice. It used to be complemented by a professional Public Service which provided fairly sound advice and support with implementation based on experience and a primary concern for whether policy could work in practice;
  • there is an inevitable gap between political ideals and ever changing practical reality which needs to be effectively bridged (see Why are bureaucrats bureaucratic?).

Another result is that the effectiveness of government administration has declined to a very low level. Indications of this are outlined in Queensland's Challenge (February 2001) and Queensland's Ongoing Challenges, with a summary in the Growing Case for a Professional Public Service. Correcting this weakness must take at least 10-15 years from whenever (and if ever) a commitment is made to do so - because of the time required to accumulate the knowledge and experience senior administrators require.

Moreover bullying appears to have emerged as an unavoidable management style because of limitations in the knowledge, skills and professional credibility of politically-endorsed 'senior' officials - a feature which has apparently contributed to problems in the public sector enterprise bargaining system.

Factors in the failure of early 1990s' Public Sector reforms appeared to include:

  • a superficial understanding of why problems in public administration had arisen;
  • treating existing staff as the cause of those problems - and thus losing the experience and capabilities needed to give effect to a reform agenda which staff generally supported;
  • control by those with good political connections but little experience or practical knowledge;
  • a misguided 're-engineering' agenda which aimed to treat governing as a business; and
  • across the board erosion of relevant knowledge and skills - which were not understood.

However an underlying cause of all these factors (and thus a potential solution) lies in the absence to date of civil institutions to provide well-considered and applied inputs to Queensland's political system - a deficiency that has made poor quality populist government a feature of Queensland's history.   Queensland's Weak Parliament suggests that this deficiency seems to be both a cause and a consequence of Queensland's relatively underdeveloped economy.

It would be very serious if the loss of independence, professionalism and competency which has occurred in public administration were to extend into Queensland's judiciary.

October 2002

Addendum Addendum

In 2005, an appeal to the High Court resulted in a decision that charges against the former Chief Magistrate should never have been brought because legislative provisions gave judicial officers protection from prosecution for any administrative actions.

This decision appears to have created further turmoil in Queensland's judicial system. In particular:

  •  the premier suggested that reinstating her would be destabilizing, because there were many problems in her term of office [1];
  • the overturning of this conviction cast serious doubt on the administration of justice in Queensland because of inadequate actions by judicial officers, and ineptitude associated with politicisation of judicial positions [1];
  • no one had recognized the immunity from prosecution that judicial officers gained under the Magistrates Act [1] and this level of immunity was without precedent anywhere [1]