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Cool heads and mediation

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Former Queensland chief magistrate Di Fingleton was in the High Court last week trying to get her conviction and 12-month jail term overturned for allegedly threatening another magistrate.

The issue of Fingleton's alleged guilt is purely a matter for the High Court, but what is intriguing is this: how did what looks like an industrial dispute end up in the criminal justice system?

After all, the Fingleton case could have been resolved through a combination of cool heads and mediation.


What got Fingleton into hot water was her threat in an email to remove a colleague, Basil Gribbin, as a co-ordinating magistrate - a position that carries with it extra responsibility but only $2,000 extra in salary - because Gribbin had sworn an affidavit in support of Anne Thacker, another magistrate, who was appealing against a decision by Fingleton to transfer her to Townsville.

Given these facts, why did prosecuting authorities in Queensland - those responsible for deciding whether to utilise the criminal justice system in a particular case - spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on court proceedings? After all, they could have urged the parties involved, or even the Queensland Attorney-General, to bring the warring parties together for a mediated settlement.

In Queensland, there appears to be a tension between those magistrates who have been appointed from what was, until six or seven years ago, the traditional route of the public service, and those appointed from the legal profession. Gribbin comes from the former culture; Fingleton, the latter.

In Queensland, magistrates have been industrially organised for some time through a Magistrates Association, whose job it is to safeguard the working conditions of its members.

Gribbin was vice-president of the association and Fingleton was, in effect, the employer, given her right to transfer and promote or demote magistrates. Gribbin appears to have sworn his affidavit in support of Thacker because he was outraged by the fact that Thacker, who had familial reasons for not wanting to be moved to Townsville by Fingleton, was being forced to go.

Why did Gribbin swear the affidavit in the first place? Wouldn't it have been better had he sought the assistance of the Magistrates Association to make forceful representations on Thacker's behalf to Fingleton? Why didn't Fingleton, when she learned of Gribbin's affidavit, ask him to meet her so that they might discuss the matter in a constructive way?


The second matter that sent Fingleton and Gribbin into apoplectic spins was an item on the agenda of a meeting of co-ordinating magistrates that was to be held on September 19, 2002. The agenda item that upset Gribbin was one concerning the role of the Magistrates Association.

Gribbin appears to have sent a memo to those magistrates who were going to attend the meeting asking them to oppose any move to discuss the association at the meeting. He did not send a copy of this letter to the chair or deputy chair of the meeting - Fingleton and the deputy chief magistrate. Fingleton heard about the Gribbin letter and once again saw it as an undermining of her authority. She wouldn't allow Gribbin to attend the meeting - when he turned up the doors were locked!

But it was on the day before the meeting that an obviously steamed-up Fingleton sent the email to Gribbin that landed her in jail. In her email she complained about his having supplied an affidavit in support of Thacker and about his seeking to influence the agenda of the September 19 meeting. And she demanded formally to know within seven days why she shouldn't axe Gribbin from his co-ordinating magistrate position at the Brisbane suburban court of Beenleigh.

The tragedy of this case is that had Gribbin and Fingleton been able to conciliate their concerns then what was obviously an industrial dispute would not have ended up in the criminal law system. And Fingleton would not have ended up in jail.

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First published in The Australian on February 3, 2005.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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