: Perceptions of bias in Alice Springs

Perceptions of bias in Alice Springs

Ruth Brebner
Northern Territory

On 12 October 2012, the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory (Barr J) prohibited an acting magistrate from hearing a criminal matter in the Alice Springs Court of Summary Jurisdiction (ODPP v McNamara [2012] NTSC 81). The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions raised an objection on the basis the acting magistrate’s husband was the principal legal officer of the criminal law division of Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (‘CAALAS’). Approximately 72 per cent of criminal matters in the lower courts in the NT involve Aboriginal defendants, the vast majority of whom are legally represented by CAALAS in Alice Springs. The principal legal officer’s position involves supervision of other legal staff, monitoring of the advocacy section, and conduct of serious criminal casework. There was no suggestion the principal legal officer would actually appear before his wife in her capacity as an acting magistrate.

In his reasons, Barr J held the prohibition was not a reflection of the professional integrity of the individuals concerned but rather the perception of bias that an objective lay person would have, should the acting magistrate continue to hear matters where her husband was even indirectly responsible for the representation of the defendant.

Alice Springs has a population of 28 000; therefore it is highly likely that couples, extended family members, and social contacts will regularly face one another in a professional capacity. The decision represents a huge blow to regional legal service providers, who struggle to attract and retain professional staff. One mechanism to encourage longer term retention of employees in regional Australia is to offer employment, employment opportunities, or relocation benefits to family units.

The Attorney-General has announced an appeal against Barr J’s decision. The purpose has been stated as to clarify the situation surrounding potential conflicts of interest into the future, particularly as the Northern Territory legal profession is quite small, and a number of practitioners are in domestic relationships.

RUTH BREBNER is a Darwin-based lawyer.

(2012) 37(4) AltLJ 288
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