Judicial Complaints Push

Judges are reportedly supportive of the creation of a federal system for dealing with complaints.
Judges are reportedly supportive of the creation of a federal system for dealing with complaints.

The group representing the ­nation’s judges has backed calls for a federal judicial commission to handle complaints against federal judges, saying it would promote public confidence in the courts.

Attorney-General Christian Porter says he is “not closed-­minded” to the idea.

Judicial Conference of Australia president Robert Beech-Jones, a NSW Supreme Court judge, said judges supported the creation of a structured federal system for dealing with complaints, based on the system in NSW.

“As with other jurisdictions, a judicial commission promotes public confidence in the accountability of the judiciary while ­providing formal protections to ­judicial officers in respect of complaints,” he said.

His comments come after The Weekend Australian last week ­revealed at least two family law judges had yet to deliver judgments from hearings that took place four years ago.

Family Court judge Jenny Hogan has at least one judgment outstanding from more than four years ago, and another from more than three years ago. Federal Circuit Court judge Anne Demack has at least two judgments outstanding from hearings that ended more than four years ago.

Other Family Court and Federal Circuit Court judges are also understood to have judgments that have been reserved for long periods of time, leaving families unable to get on with their lives.

The government has introduced legislation to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court in a bid to streamline the family law system.

However, lawyers have said the chronic court backlogs will not be solved without more resources, and a Senate ­inquiry could hamper the government’s ability to pass the legislation in this term of parliament.

Mr Porter said it did not make sense to “identify poor performance of existing court resources and suggest the answer is more ­resources.

“And it is precisely for this ­reason that I am not closed-minded to further considering the merits and proposed design of a federal judicial commission to handle complaints in relation to the federal judiciary.”

Under the Constitution, a judge can be removed only by the ­governor-general on an address from both houses of parliament on the grounds of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.

University of Adelaide professor of law Suzanne Le Mire said legislation introduced by the ­Gillard government in 2012 tried to formalise the way the heads of each federal court handled ­complaints, but it did not go far enough, and did not provide a ­rigorous or transparent way to manage judicial conduct.

While problematic judicial conduct was rare, when it arose it had the potential to damage the system and profoundly affect ­people’s lives, she said.

She said an independent body was needed, which could investigate complaints and impose a range of sanctions, if necessary, ­including public censure, or recommend medical treatment, counselling, judicial education or ongoing monitoring.

Similar bodies existed in Britain and Canada.

“Crafted carefully … it’s perfectly possible to make it constitutional,” Professor Le Mire said.

University of NSW professor of law Andrew Lynch said the 2012 legislation focused on misconduct and did not have a distinct process to deal with “suspected impairment” of judges.

He said an independent body to handle com­plaints was needed.