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Sir Terence O'Rort
24 March, 2003  
Sunshine rots the brain

Sunshine rots the brain. Queensland’s crime and justice industry has been awash with strife: the strange decision by the DPP to drop proceedings against a friend of the Attorney General; the “Lady” Di Fingleton fiasco; and now the AG is dreaming-up more measures to reform the rotton old Queensland Law Society

Queensland’s crime and justice industry has been awash with strife over the past few months and there is no saying if things will ever improve.

Let’s go through the embarrassments one at a time or, as they say on the Gold Coast, seriatim.

Volkers’ case

On September 18 last year, the DPP intervened to drop seven charges against Scott Volkers relating to indecent dealings with girls 20 year ago. Volkers is head coach of the Australian women’s swimming team and the Queensland Academy of Sport.

The charges were dropped ostensibly because the DPPs’ office concluded that a jury would not be able to make a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission has investigated the decision by Paul Rutledge, deputy DPP, to drop the charges. The CMC’s director of the complaints directorate, Helen Couper, had to excuse herself from the inquiry because her partner, Michael Byrne QC, had acted for Volkers.

It was Byrne who made a submission to Rutledge on behalf of Volkers. Byrne had been Rutledge’s predecessor as deputy DPP.

On March 20, The Courier-Mail said that a draft CMC report has been prepared and is critical of the DPP’s handling of the Volkers’ case. It said that flawed procedures and decisions contributed to the deputy DPP dropping the charges. The prosecutor has prepared a response to the draft report and the final CMC document will be finished early next month.

Rutledge allegedly told police not to investigate the case further following submissions from Volkers’ lawyers. At that meeting Rutledge was presented with “timeframe” evidence and it was argued that evidence from one of the complainants against Volkers could not be corroborated.

Police were not given access to the witness statements prepared by the defence team, nor were they instructed to verify the evidence put forward by Volkers’ lawyers.

But the element that gave the dropping of the charges that added frisson of excitement was Volkers long-standing friendship with Attorney General Rod Welford. When he was arrested in July last year, Volkers (right) made a request to the police that he be permitted to telephone the Attorney General.

Rutledge insists that he was not aware of the friendship between Volkers and Welford. A spokesman for the Attorney General has said that the AG did not ask the DPP to drop the charges.

DPP Leanne Clare has announced that from now on any similar decisions by the DPP’s office must be made in consultation with her.

It also transpired that not only were the police livid at the deputy DPP dropping the charges, but so too some of the alleged victims. Julie Gilbert, Simone Boyce and Kylie O’Byrne appeared on ABC’s Australian Story in February.

Gilbert was 13 years old when she claims to have been indecently dealt with by Volkers. She said that just before the charges were dropped, the DPP presented to her the defence team’s witness statements and questioned her credibility. She had said there was a blackboard near the swimming pool yet other witnesses could not remember a blackboard. Gilbert later checked a photograph and saw that indeed there was a blackboard beside he pool.

Gilbert is now being advised by Brisbane silk Russell Hanson, who says she has a reasonable prospect of success in moving the Supreme Court to allow her to bring a private prosecution against Volkers. It is thought that an undertaking given by the deputy DPP to Volkers is so unusual that it will help persuade the court to allow her prosecution to proceed.

Of course, it was all too juicy for the politicians to ignore. Queensland Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg weighed in on Australian Story to allege that statements put to the DPP by the defence amounted to a misrepresentation and that one would expect a far higher degree of scrutiny from the prosecutor before the decision to drop the case was made.

Shields and Ryan & Bosscher threatened defamation proceedings against Springborg, who promptly issued a statement, saying:

”...Mr Volkers’ former lawyers, Ryan & Bosscher, have raised with me the possibility that my statements could have been understood by viewers as suggesting that Ryan & Bosscher and Mr Peter Shields of that firm had engaged in professional misconduct. No such suggestion was intended by me. On the information presently available, such a suggestion would be unwarranted…I am pleased to take this opportunity to correct any misunderstanding.”

Blah, blah, blah. Grovel, grovel, grovel.

In the meantime, police have resumed their investigations and are preparing further evidence with the view to having the charges reinstated.

Rutledge has since applied to be Queensland’s inaugural State Coroner. Attorney General Welford is in the process of vetting applications for this possie and the successful candidate should be announced awfully soon.

Swimming Upstream

Also in the running to be the first State Coroner is magistrate Sheryl Cormack. Cormack last year was one of five magistrates who took action against Chief Magistrate “Lady” Di Fingleton for acting illegally, unreasonably and bullying.

Beenleigh magistrate Basil Gribbin also alleged that Lady Di had threatened him with demotion if he gave evidence against her in another dispute with magistrate Anne Thacker, who objected to Fingleton’s efforts to transfer her to Townsville.

Thacker went to the Queensland Judicial Committee, consisting of three judges: Geoff Davies, Margaret White and from the District Court, Patsy Wolfe. Last October they ruled that Lady Di had acted unfairly in making the decision to transfer the applicant.

Not only that, but the judges admonished Fingleton (right) for creating an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust among fellow magistrates. Through gritted teeth Fingleton thanked them for their “guidance”.

As a result of the threat to Basil, Lady Di was investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission which found there was sufficient evidence to support a charge against her of perverting the course of justice and interfering with a witness.

Two prominent CMC figures disqualified themselves from the Fingleton inquiry. Chairman Brendan Butler withdrew because of his friendship with the Chief Magistrate and so did the director of the complaints directorate Helen Couper, again because of her relationship with Michael Byrne QC, who had provided advice to Gribbin on whether Fingleton’s actions amounted to perverting the course of justice.

Following the CMC findings in December, Fingleton stood aside as Chief Magistrate on full pay.

Attorney General Welford gave his public blessing to Fingleton throughout the course of the CMC investigation and, until the adverse CMC finding, Fingleton’s legal fees were paid by the government.

Queensland Liberal Leader Bob Quinn got awfully upset and accused the Beattie government of giving Fingleton a “special deal” by paying her legal fees. Welford warned that Quinn should be careful about defaming a judicial officer.

Following the CMC’s finding, Lawrence Sprinborg, then Shadow Justice Minister, questioned Di Fingleton’s appointment as Chief Magistrate. Fingleton is a devoted Labor hack having started as a “steno” on Bill Hayden’s staff in the Whitlam government. She went on to work for Dean “Space Cadet” Wells when he was AG. In 1995 incoming MP Anna Bligh, now Queensland education minister, publicly thanked Lady Di for her help in winning her seat.

Fat Matt Foley appointed her Chief Magistrate in 1999.

On January 24, Fingleton appeared in the Magistrate’s Court on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice and interfering with a witness. She reappeared on March 10 and has since decided to waive her right to a committal hearing on the charges.

Patrick Murphy, who is representing Fingleton, said she had agreed to skip the committal and go straight to trial following a request from the DPP. The trial date has not yet been set.

There are also overtones of life in the swimming pool in the Di Fingleton saga. Her struggles are portrayed by Britanny Byrnes in Swimming Upstream, the film about the “Flying Fingletons” and their brutal, drunken father. For a closer look, it’s on at a Hoyts near you.

More pongs from the Frat Room

As if we needed any reassurance that the Queensland Law Society remains an utterly odious carbuncle on the polity that is Queensland, Legal Ombudsman Jack Nimmo issued a report on the rottenness of the regulatory regime administered by the society.

Nimmo found that the QLS had not adequately responded to over 100 complaints that it had received alleging overcharging, fraud and misrepresentation against the Brisbane law shop Baker Johnson.

One of the complaints against Baker Johnson, whose logo is a charging rhino, currently before the Solicitors’ Complaints Tribunal, involves legal clerk Dean Bax, who did not have a law degree and was not admitted to practice. Bax was held out as a solicitor and charged out at $308 an hour.

Around the time of the Legal Ombudsman’s report, the QLS was in the process of implementing “reforms” to its professional standards and investigations process. In an unfortunate turn of events, Nick Masinello, the lawyer overseeing implementation of the reforms, was sacked half way through the process for alleged misuse of a law society credit card.

This month, in another desperate throw at trying to look relevant the QLS appointed Superintendent Malcolm Hinton, the head of the Police legal services branch, to run its legal investigations and prosecutions department.

Attorney General Welford is agonising over whether the QLS should be stripped of its regulatory functions. He is meant to be putting a “legal profession reform package” to Cabinet in six weeks.

It is the umpteenth such package. Nothing has come of the previous grand visions to clean up the QLS’ rorts, and there is no reason to think that this package will result in rivers being diverted through the Augean Stables.