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Polly Peck
17 November, 2009  
Capital Offences

UPDATE ... Chief Magistrate of ACT resigns as investigation into his alleged misconduct about to gear-up … Suppression of the identity of a public figure facing a criminal charge

imageThe Chief Magistrate of the ACT, Ron Cahill (pic), quit his post suddenly this morning (Tuesday, Nov. 17).

He sent his resignation to the Attorney General from his room at Canberra Hospital and cited health problems as the reason for his departure.

Rocket Ron Cahill has been Chief Magistrate for 20 years and was due to retire on December 15.

Cahill was also facing two inquiries into his conduct.

The AFP is investigating an allegation related to perverting the course of justice.

Attorney General Simon Corbell had also established a judicial commission of retired Supreme Court judges to look into alleged misconduct by the CM.

It comprised James Wood and Jerrold Cripps from NSW and Ted Mulligan from South Australia

Following Rocket Ron’s resignation today, the AG announced that the judicial commission will be abandoned.

imageCorbell (pic) said he had no choice as the commission had not yet started and can only investigate a sitting judicial officer. He must have been grief stricken about Ron’s decision.

Presumably the AFP investigation will continue.

All of this is the tip of what is a darker story.

Earlier this month police, acting on a complaint from Jon White, the ACT DPP, executed a search warrant on Rocket’s chambers.

The investigation centered on material that Cahill allegedly gave a Victorian magistrate, Peter Lauritsen.

Lauritsen had been called in to try a sensitive Canberra case involving a politically well-connected quasi-judicial person whose name has been suppressed.

This prominent Canberra person has been charged with assaulting his daughter.

Despite the suppression order, the case has been the talk of the town for months. Most people in Canberra’s judicial, political, administrative and journalistic circles know who has been charged and what is going on.

The person is still on the government pay-roll, although only doing light duties at the moment.

According to The Canberra Times of November 4, prosecutors aborted the criminal proceedings before Lauritsen after he revealed that he had been sent a detailed briefing on the case.

Complaints were also made to Corbell by two other magistrates, John Burns and Karen Frayar.

The Attorney General, said: “This is a very serious matter … It goes to the heart of the roles and responsibilities of judicial officers.”

The Canberra Times had unsuccessfully applied for a variation of the suppression order, originally granted by Cahill in June.

Magistrate Burns on September 30 said in his reasons that the underlying issue was s.91 of the Evidence (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1991.

This provision allows the court to suppress the publication of evidence where it “is likely to prejudice the administration of justice”.

imageThe restrictions that relate to the publication of the identity of under-aged victims in criminal proceedings was not in contention at this point.

The Canberra Times’ legal affairs correspondent, Noel Towell (pic), told the court that all he sought to do was to report the fact that the public figure had been charged and to consider the effect this had on the organisation for which he worked.

Towell said he would not report the nature of the charge or that it related to the accused’s 16-year old daughter.

Burns said this was a responsible approach but nonetheless rejected it on the strength of a psychologist’s evidence, which dealt with the impact the publication of the accused’s name might have on the daughter.

Susan Glenn-Hume had been treating the daughter since June and said:

”[She] presents as a rather confused and vulnerable young person who is impressionable and lacking judgment about safe and sensible behaviours.”

Burns accepted that if the suppression order were lifted and the accused’s name published in connection with a charge of assault, his daughter …

“will recognise that the charge is one relating to her, even if the general public do not know that. She is likely to feel increasing guilt and stress as a consequence … As a consequence of these feelings there is a risk of self-harm and a risk that gains made in addressing her ongoing psychological issues may be compromised.

In addition, if [the accused’s] name were to be published in connection with the alleged commission of a crime, the evidence establishes that there is a likelihood that the [victim] will be subject to bullying or teasing at her school.”

For these reasons the suppression order continues – not to protect the identity of a well-known Canberra figure, but to protect his daughter’s feelings, psychological state, and to prevent school yard taunts “in the interests of the administration of justice”.

This gives rise to an interesting tension between the right to know about the conduct of a public figure and how it impacts on his work as a public official and the protection of a vulnerable person.

What the police will probe is whether Rocket Ron’s missives to Magistrate Lauritsen look too much like submissions supportive of the defence in the assault case.

If Ron were to have gone so far as to suggest to Lauritsen what conclusion he should draw about guilt or innocence, there could be real strife.

Canberra Times editor-at-large, Jack Waterford, said on Saturday (Nov. 14) that the accused public figure is known “personally and professionally by Cahill”.

He points out that is also the situation with many others throughout Canberra’s local government.

In an interview with The Canberra Times’ reporter Towell, published on November 5, Cahill said:

“I have done nothing wrong and I want to emphasise that I haven’t had the opportunity to put my point of view about what I did…

But, I will tell you now that I will go to the highest court in the land until the day I die to ensure my character should not be besmirched…

This is not a case of me influencing a magistrate at all, it’s a case of doing what I thought was appropriate to assist in making the case run appropriately.”

Subsequently, the federal coppers raided The Canberra Times’ offices and seized Towell’s digital recorder and notebook.

The trouble is that in trying to make sure the proceedings ran “appropriately” Ron Cahill managed to derail them.

In view of what has happened Lauristen is likely to be taken off the case.

There’s one nagging question: what would be the likelihood of a suppression order in a case with similar factual circumstances, except that the accused is not a well-connected public figure?


Reader Comments

Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 18, 2009, 6:35 pm

The full story of this sad episode will now never be known which is unfortunate because it is a matter that should have been subjected to a rigorous and public examination. The issue of how judicial officers prepare for cases, what information they access and how this impacts on the way they administer the law goes to the heart of our judicial system. It is a shame these important issues will not be given the public airing they so desperately need. I personally like the man very much but that doesn’t mean I have the blinkers on regarding what has been alleged in this case. Good people can make mistakes too and those in important roles often make bigger mistakes / misjudgements by virtue of the trust, authority and responsibility with which they are entrusted. And the well known Canberra public figure continues to suckle the public mammaries to the tune of $240K per year while engaged on light duties for which the ordinary public servant would be paid around one third of same.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: November 21, 2009, 8:16 am

In a bizarre twist, Saturday's Canberra Times reports that the ACT DPP has complained to the ACT Law Society about the professional conduct of the solicitor for the well known Canberra public figure. It seems Bernard Colleary (aka as 'Bernie the Attorney' because he was once the ACT's Attorney-General) has written to the Victorian Deputy Chief Magistrate, Peter Lauritsen, urging him not to disqualify himself from the case, and that it be heard ASAP. Bernie duly 'filed and served' his correspondence. However, it seems to have got right up the nose of the DPP, who sees it as “inappropriate”; and has dashed off a billet doux to the Canberra 'Bureau de Spank'. Predictably, Bernie believes he’s behaved with propriety. All this made little impression on the Acting ACT Chief Magistrate, Peter Dingwall. ‘Dingers’ told the DPP at a directions hearing this week that Mr Lauritsen would not be able to hear the well known public figure matter because his appointment to the ACT Bench expired on 31 December, and there were no hearing dates available before then. While the ACT DPP fiddles, Rome burns. When it comes to convictions the ACT prosecutors just can’t take a trick. During the week the DPP lost yet another major ACT Supreme Court jury trial. Judging by the evidence reported in the media, it makes one wonder how the case ever made it to court. Yet another case of “we’ll put it up in the small chance the jury will believe us” rather than looking at the evidence available and making an assessment whether it would prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. Hope the missive to the Bureau de Spank is more soundly based.
Posted by: Anonymous
Date: December 1, 2009, 7:48 pm

This sorry saga tells us more about the Government's (successive) inability to manage the courts efficiency by making the Chief Magistrate's position accountable on administrative issues. It is outrageous that Rocket Ron has been able to get away with being largely invisible for so many years. For decades the legal community has lacked an effective Chief. Now what? Where does that leave us with appointing Rocket Ron's successor? Drifting on and on and on while the challenges mount up.