By Andrew Fraser, Political correspondent "Canberra Times" 20 June 2008
The Rudd Government is moving to establish a body that would for the first time systematically deal with complaints against judges.
Attorney General Robert McLelland has written to his State and Territory colleagues, proposing that he and they set up a working group "to examine the feasibility of the National Judicial College of Australia being given a judicial complaints handling function".
The move could prove controversial with some elements of the judiciary and legal profession who maintain entrenched opposition to the notion of a watchdog on judges saying it undermines judicial independence. But many politicians have long pushed for some mechanism to deal with complaints about the physical and mental competence, and integrity, of judges.
New South Wales has had a judicial commission for more than 20 years, established under the Wran Labour government by Attorney General Terry Sheehan.
National Judicial College Chairman Chief Justice Wayne Martin of the Western Australian Supreme Court will refer Mr McLelland's plan to the college's council. It comprises Family Court Justice Linda Dessau, County Court of Victoria JusticeTom Wodak, Western Australian Chief Magistrate Stephen Heath, former Federal Attorney General Robert Ellicott QC (Mr McLelland's nominee) and Renee Leon, of the ACT Department of Justice and Community Safety.
Mr McLelland saidCombining Commonwealth, State and Territory resources would produce economies of scale and greater impartiality because members of the judiciary asked to consider allegations of judicial conduct could be sourced from the judiciary of other jurisdictions.
The National complaints body would act as a one-stop shop.
At present, many court users are not aware of where they should direct the complaints because they are unsure whether a particular judicial officer is Federal or State.
I believe the college would be well placed to perform this function.
The college has a governance structure involving judges at all levels from all jurisdictions. It is recognised by the judiciary as being an effective, independent body promoting judicial education and training.
A national complaints body would enhance public confidence in the courts, while not diminishing in any way judicial independence.
ACT Chief Magistrate Ron Cahill is an alternate member of the council.
Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, a long-time campaigner for a judicial complaints handling body, welcomed Mr McLelland's proposal.
Justice Martin saidIf the proposal progressed I will consult more widely, including with the Council of Chief Justices.
I would be pleased to discuss the proposal further with Mr McClelland or his representative but further comment this early would be inappropriate.
Senator Heffernan has sought to use Parliament to raise issues about the competence and integrity of several judicial officers from various courts.
He has been in touch with Mr McClelland's office since the senator's most recent concerns, raised at recent Estimates committee hearings, about the appropriateness of one judge continuing to sit.
Senator Heffernan saidYou've got to have a process for dealing with this
The National Judicial College was established in 2002 to help the professional development of Australia's judges.
Senator Heffernan saidWe need a process to do with complaints
All states except Victoria take part in college programs, and help the Commonwealth with its funding.
20 June 2008