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City Desk
14 June, 2008  
Can General Patten rescue the House of Ngo?

How come David Patten, acting Supremo and former leader of the NSW Liberals, has been given the job of inquiring into the conviction of political assassin Phuong Ngo? Alex Mitchell ponders some of the judge’s recent decisions


imageThere were serious questions about the Phuong Ngo case ever since the Fairfield ALP councillor was slotted for the murder of the MP for Cabramatta, John Newman.

Four Corners recently drew together the doubts and the inconsistencies in the Crown case.

The cry went out for a judicial eminence to conduct a review and who could be more eminent than David Patten, former NSW Liberal Party president (1979 to 1982)?

A politically and socially ambitious solicitor, Patten was appointed to the Dizzo and following his retirement from that slot is now one of the five “permanent” acting justices of the NSW Supreme Court.

He also doubles as deputy chairman of the NSW Medical Tribunal, which inflicts pain and misery on errant members of the medical profession.

Spiggsy Spigelman CJ was the one who appointed Patten to conduct the judicial inquiry.

By establishing a review into Ngo’s conviction Spigs has opened what esteemed crime and punishment writer Evan Whitton would call, “a can of worms”.

The Deputy Police Commissioner of NSW, Nick Kaldas, is alleged to have withheld crucial information in the case, presumably material that emerged from an interview he conducted with former Fairfield councillor, Albert Ranse.

Patten will have to trawl through the role of the coppers, the prosecutors and other law enforcement figures who participated in the conviction of the Vietnamese boat person who later founded Cabramatta’s Mekong Club and stacked the local ALP branches with his own supporters.

The police are feeding a chorus of dismay about the judicial inquiry.

The choice of a former Dizzo judge for such an onerous role is puzzling. Why not a heavy hitter, like a retired and distinguished relic from the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court or one of the former Highs?

If there is any justice, Patten’s conclusions can only go one way – that Ngo’s conviction for the 1994 murder was unsafe and should be set aside.

Ngo should be out of Goulburn Jail’s Super Max, where the government insists that “the worst of the worst” are held, within six months.

On the other hand, Patten’s review may end up tipping a ton of fast setting cement over this crime, the first political assassination in Australian history, and the hapless Ngo will finish his time at the Crowbar Motel.

Patten’s career on the bench has been varied, but not overly remarkable.

In January Justinian recorded fragrant details of Symonds v Vass case. Patten tip-toed around the advocates immunity and ordered Dunhill Madden Butler (now PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal) to disgorge $140,000 of the $170,000 it had billed its clients.

He added interest at 10 per cent a year which stuck another $180,000 on the tariff.

In March 2005 Patten found that Timothy Edward Kosowicz, 23, was not guilty of the murder and rape of five-year-old Chloe Hoson due to mental illness.

He rounded on the health authorities for their many failures to treat Kosowicz and keep him in care. Two weeks after he was discharged from hospital, he suffocated and strangled Chloe in an outer Sydney caravan park before sexually assaulting her body.

“I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that the community failed Chloe,” Patten said in sentencing.

“Practitioners in mental health had known for years that the accused was a habitual and heavy user of illegal drugs; that he was mentally ill; that he was subject to florid psychiatric episodes in which he was aggressive and dangerous to himself and others; and that he was recalcitrant when it came to following regimens of medication laid down for him.”

He ordered Kosowicz to be incarcerated in a prison psychiatric hospital where he will stay until the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal deems him no longer a danger to himself or others.

Patten has also strayed into the defamation jurisdiction where he presided over the case brought by Byron Bay councillor Ross Tucker, publisher of the Mullumbimby Star, against the rival Byron Echo and local gonzo environmental activist Fast Buck$.

Tucker, a self-made, pro-developer type and, fittingly, former head of Army catering, sued over a Fast Buck$’ article that concerned a former employee, Leanne Potts, who had won an industrial relations case against the Star’s proprietors for underpayment of wages.

Fast Buck$ piece was written in response to an editorial in the Star, which blamed Potts and the “mad industrial laws” for the paper’s temporary closure.

The $125,000 damages verdict to Tucker and the over-blown and indignant tone adopted by Patten surprised many who observed the case at close quarters.

The Echo’s appeal went nowhere. Justinian’s sister organ the Gazette of Law & Journalism covered the case in loving detail.

Star Buck$ is prone to flamboyant ridicule of the judiciary. In his submission to the appeal court he said:

“The possibility that the attacker [Tucker] may well have shown himself in his attack to be a right prick who deserved limitless pain and embarrassment for his outrageous conduct towards Ms Potts – and possibly sundry others – is not even considered. That a judge [Patten] could be so negligent without adverse comment from the Court of Appeal says much about the norms in this jurisdiction.”

To get to this point Spiggsy must have been confident that Ngo’s conviction was flawed. It’s not as though a demagogue like Alan Jones insisted on an inquiry and bullied a soft-headed Premier into line, as happened in the Kalajzich case.

The Chief Justice has passed the baton to Patten. Will the aging former champion of the Liberal cause have it in him to set things right for the House of Ngo?

Don’t forget Justinian’s anonymous news-tip feature