Page 2702 - Week 09 - Tuesday, 16 August 2005

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The only real demand we can make of the government in this respect is that it accepts the decision of the Supreme Court and consequently of the coroner. I believe that we can now dispense with the question of perceived bias. I believe that the decision of the full bench of the ACT Supreme Court has put the issue at rest and I trust that we can now look forward to the coroner’s inquiry being wrapped up and the final report being delivered.

In this debate, I would like to repeat some other concerns I have about the organisation of the courts in the ACT. It is a concern expressed by a range of others in the legal profession and elsewhere in the community about the system used to allocate magistrates to particular matters. Currently there is a rotating roster so that when a matter arises the next magistrate on the list is the one to deal with it. It would seem more sensible to select magistrates to hear matters on the basis of their skill and expertise in the area rather than just because their number came up. This would have the effect of ensuring that coroners have a less steep learning curve when they confront a major inquiry.

There is also the question of the time that is made available to those magistrates and the courts to deal with matters of such importance. We have raised concerns regarding the time taken for inquests into deaths in custody, compliance of disability and mental health services and concerns regarding the subsequent time taken for findings to be released. Inquests in the ACT, even without intervening legal action, can take several years. Months can pass between the conclusion of an inquest and the publication of the full findings. These are not questions of improper behaviour by the Attorney-General in regard to the particulars of a case; however, they are reflections on the management of the judicial system and the allocation of resources.

Since the end of the 1990s it would seem there has been enough work to keep a dedicated coroner busy and enough demand on courts’ time to justify an increase in funding so that, in the public interest, matters of real significance to the operations of a range of our services here in the territory could be effectively and promptly pursued and resolved. I do not think it would be offensive or inappropriate to add that a more specialised approach to coronial inquests might obviate some of the distress encountered by witnesses and others associated in such inquests both in their conduct and in the time taken to conduct them.

MR PRATT (Brindabella) (11.23): The theme for my concern that the Attorney-General is deserving of a censure is that the ACT community needed a fiercely independent and searching Doogan inquiry because the Chief Minister’s handpicked McLeod inquiry failed to answer all of the vital questions. When Doogan started getting closer to doing just this, the Chief Minister moved to choke her off. The Chief Minister was recorded in Hansard on April Fool’s Day 2004 as saying:

I have expressed the view many times … and I will continue to express the view, that I think it is important that we not interfere with the workings of the coronial inquiry. I think it particularly important that we not pre-empt the outcomes of the coronial inquest or prejudge anybody that has appeared or has yet to appear before the inquest—indeed, anybody involved in fighting the fire on 18 January 2003 and in the days leading up to that.

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