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Wednesday, 30 November 1983
Page: 3045

Mr GRIFFITHS(12.24) —I will certainly keep my comments brief because I think there is a chance that this part of today's business may be concluded before the suspension of the sitting for lunch. On that basis I will try to keep my comments as brief and as succinct as possible. I would like to say at the outset that I had some experience, albeit limited, in drawing up the Victorian Labor Party policy relating to the then proposed establishment of a Director of Public Prosecutions in that jurisdiction. Perhaps I should just outline some of the aspects and, I think, some of the more successful results of that legislation as one reason why this Parliament ought to endorse fully like proposals at a Federal level.

One of the reasons given for the Victorian legislation was the inadequate staff levels and facilities that were found in the Victorian Crown Solicitor's Office and the consequent difficulty it had coping with the volume and complexity of the various matters brought before it. Certainly that problem is mirrored in the Commonwealth position, as adequately outlined in a number of reports that have been presented to the Government. It was felt at the Victorian level that the model of the DPP, based to a significant extent on the situation applying in the United Kingdom, ought to have been embraced. That did happen, albeit with some differences that were established to adapt the model to the Victorian context.

The principal reason for the desire to establish the DPP was a feeling that one ought to distance the State Attorney-General from politically sensitive prosecutions such as those that might arise from royal commissions, et cetera. The Victorian legislation provided for the appointment of a Director of Public Prosecutions, whose functions are to prepare, institute and conduct criminal proceedings in the High Court of Australia, the Supreme Court and the County Court. The DPP was able to co-ordinate general prosecution policy and procedures by issuing guidelines to crown prosecutors, police and others. The Attorney- General in Victoria still retains the power to decline to proceed in a case commenced by the DPP. This power-a very old one-is inherent in the office of the Attorney-General and is expressly preserved in the Victorian legislation. Of course, traditionally it has been sparingly used, and that ought to remain the case with respect to similar provisions in the Federal legislation.

In Victoria, the DPP under John Phillips QC has been able to reduce the backlog of cases awaiting trial from 900, when he was appointed, to a figure currently between 620 and 720. Further reductions are likely to occur next year. Of course , the mere fact of setting up a DPP is not of itself sufficient. One needs to address the other factors impinging on the sorts of court delays that have been a significant feature of our legal system in recent years. They relate to the necessity for increased allocation of funding. That has been addressed in Victoria, with a fairly significant increase in the Budget allocation this year. The present staffing level in Victoria-I think it is worth pointing out that it is not a bureaucratic nightmare-is in the vicinity of 100. When one takes account of the significant savings in manpower resources in the police force, et cetera, it is a fairly efficiently run organisation, although it is only yet in its infancy. The reduction in court backlogs is part of the overall strategy that was addressed in addition by the appointment of extra County Court and Supreme Court judges. I make those latter comments because I think it is important that the DPP of itself is not seen to be a panacea.

The relationship between the DPP and some of the other pioneering legislation that the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) has brought before this Parliament, such as the National Crimes Commission Bill, again cannot be seen in a vacuum. One has to integrate the concept with a whole series of other reforms. An editorial in the Canberra Times on 18 April 1983 set out the current position with respect to the Commonwealth. I shall not quote that editorial but it did indicate that prosecutions were dealt with by officers of the Deputy Crown Solicitor's Office, and often they were briefed out to private practitioners.

The present system resulted from reforms by the then Attorney-General, Senator, now Mr Justice Murphy, who in 1973 took over the conduct of prosecutions from the police prosecutors. In the exercise of that function prosecutors, whether government lawyers or policemen, were expected to apply an almost judicial detachment from the outcome of a particular case, their function being not so much to win as to ensure that all the facts were put before the court. They have performed reasonably well in this role, within the limitations of the powers under which they act. They were not allowed to take into account outside considerations in the conduct of their cases. They were fairly significantly constrained in a number of aspects in the conduct of legal proceedings. The real difficulty that was adverted to in that editorial was that they were public servants. Of course, public servants are usually impartial and independent, but there is always the possibility that they may be subject to ministerial direction or other political interference. When one is talking about the judicial process, that is something that ought not to be countenanced. The editorial adverted to the 'rumour mill' in Canberra-I think that was the term used-whereby if anyone was perceived to have received, or there was a possibility of somebody having received, favourable treatment through the judicial process, it made it very difficult to refute the implication that some political pressure had been brought to bear. Once again that is a position that ought not to be countenanced.

The fact that the Department has maintained its normal bureaucratic involvement again is something that has been addressed in terms of the DPP. Of course, the Attorney-General cannot and certainly should not, in our Westminster system, abdicate his role in all cases in terms of his ability, for example to enter a nolle prosequi or whatever. The Attorney-General, as the First Law Officer, has always borne the ultimate responsibility for prosecution decisions. The legislation should not and does not change that position, although under these proposals reasons must be published where the Attorney-General removes himself from the general tenor of the legislation and involves himself in that way. It would be very unusual indeed for the Attorney-General, under this legislation, to give a direction in a particular case. However, the possibility must be borne in mind because the Attorney-General must discharge his ultimate responsibility to Parliament and to the people for the conduct of the prosecution process.

The other aspects of the Bill have been adverted to in some detail by previous speakers, so I shall not waste the time of the House repeating some of the more mechanical matters. Suffice it to say that the problems that have been evidenced in terms of the involvement or potential involvement of the political process in decisions as to whether particular matters ought to proceed or ought not to proceed are self-evident. I think the people are looking for a detachment of the political process, particularly having regard to a number of royal commissions and other relatively recent developments in the law that really bring to the fore the possibility of political involvement in these matters. Certainly, for my part, I would not like to be in a position as a politician where it could be perceived that I had a role in influencing decisions as to whether particular matters ought to be proceeded with.

A couple of matters are currently before the Victorian Government which really bring into very sharp focus indeed the need to detach oneself from that process. One need only comment that recent proceedings relating to the Builders Labourers Federation have caused some controversy in Victoria. Certainly there are many people in the trade union movement who doubt the genuineness of the setting up of the Royal Commission into the Activities of the Australian Building Construction Employees and Builders Labourers Federation and who believe very strongly that the Royal Commission was established and continues as a political weapon. Of course, now that there has been a change of government that argument, while not one that I would embrace, is one that finds many receptive ears. It is most essential in the Victorian context that the Attorney-General not be seen to be involved directly in decisions relating to potential prosecutions. The detachment that the DPP in Victoria provides is a classic example of preventing the sort of innuendo and rumour-mongering that may have taken place, regardless of which way the Victorian Attorney-General might have gone in terms of the recommendations put forward by the Royal Commissioner. I will not take up any more time. As I said, I think the matters have been adverted to in some detail.