Chief judge scolds the prosecutor

DPP in hot water for phoning judges
VICTORIA’S two most senior judges have delivered an extraordinary rebuke to the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Jeremy Rapke, QC, accusing him of endangering the fairness of the criminal justice system.
The chiefs of the Supreme and the County Court have both taken aim at Mr Rapke over his professed habit of telephoning judges and counselling them over their “insensitive” remarks towards victims of crime.
In comments to The Age last week, Mr Rapke revealed he would sometimes ring judges after trials had ended and ask them to think next time before they spoke in court.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren released a statement yesterday rebuking him. “The role of the DPP is to prosecute criminal cases, independently, not to counsel, supervise or criticise judges in private discussions,” she said. “The community would be justifiably alarmed if that happened.”
She said she had never heard of Mr Rapke speaking to any Supreme Court judges. “I would be very concerned if he did. It is not the role of the director of public prosecutions,” she said.
“If any party to a case has a concern, the proper action is to inform the head of jurisdiction. I have not been told by Mr Rapke of any concerns about insensitive remarks. If a judge was contacted by the director, it would put at risk the independence and impartiality of the criminal justice system.”
Neither prosecution nor defence lawyers were permitted to speak to a judge directly about a case, Justice Warren said. “Everything occurs in open court so that justice is open and impartial.” She said County Court Chief Judge Michael Rozenes shared her views.
By legal convention, lawyers do not speak to judges about ongoing cases except in open court. Speaking about a case when it is over is a grey area.
Law Institute of Victoria president Tony Burke said Mr Rapke’s comment signified an inflated view of the role of his office. “No one has special access to the courts in this state. An essential part of our justice system is its impartiality,” he said. “Justice happens in public. Both trials and sentences are conducted in public.”
He said the institute also disagreed with Mr Rapke’s view, reported in The Age last weekend, that committal hearings were a waste of time and money. “The criterion in the criminal justice system is not economy and efficiency; it is fairness. An accused person should not be subjected to a lengthy trial unless it has first been established that there are reasonable grounds upon which a jury, properly charged, might convict,” Mr Burke said.
John Digby, QC, chairman of the Victorian Bar Council, said the council wholeheartedly supported the Chief Justice’s comments: “We would be opposed to any informal communications between parties to a process of the court.” He said the bar also believed that committals should be retained.
Last week Mr Rapke told The Age of a judge who complained about the prosecution of a case involving a workplace death. Mr Rapke said the judge had questioned pursuing the case because the company responsible was in liquidation and said of the death: “That doesn’t mean anything.”
The victim’s mother had left the court in tears, Mr Rapke said. “Where those things come to my attention, I’m not afraid to ring up the judge – often we’ve gone through years and years of law together – and say, as one human being to another ‘Have a think next time before you say something’.”
In previously unpublished remarks from that interview, he also said: “I’ve spoken to judges on occasions … In fact I wrote a letter to a judge last week in relation to a matter.”
He said the law governing his role gave him a particular responsibility in terms of victims of crime: “If I don’t say things in relation to matters which attract a lot of attention, then who else is going to say it?”
Mr Rapke had no comment yesterday.
‘The prosecutor said, “Well, your honour, there’s a death.” The judge said, “That doesn’t mean anything.” And the mother of that boy was in court. “Where those things come to my attention, I’m not afraid to ring up the judge.” JEREMY RAPKE, FROM SATURDAY’S AGE
“The role of the DPP is to prosecute criminal cases, independently, not to counsel, supervise or criticise judges in private discussions.” SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICE MARILYN WARREN