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Kourakis fires back in courts row as staff consider demands

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The state’s top judicial officer has fired back in an escalating row over a parliamentary inquiry that slammed the governance and workplace culture within SA’s Courts Administration Authority, as staff prepare to vote on a range of demands to expunge alleged “bullying, harassment and unfair treatment” from the workplace.

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Last year’s Statutory Authorities Review Committee’s inquiry into the court’s Sheriff’s Office noted a “large percentage of mental health diagnoses in submissions received”, arguing “the wellbeing of Sheriff’s Officers has been significantly negatively impacted under the current CAA governance structure”.

“Having received submissions containing complaints of bullying and harassment behaviour in the Sheriff’s Office over a long period of time, the Committee finds that the unprofessional culture has continued to exist without much improvement,” the inquiry found.

The committee said senior judges “already burdened and tasked with a significant [judicial] workload… could not possibly have the capacity of the necessary extensive oversight responsibility of industrial relations matters within the courts’ administration that it currently requires”, determining the authority “is not currently meeting the necessary standards in relation to human resource management practices over the Sheriff’s Office”.

But Chief Justice Chris Kourakis has now roundly rejected both the methodology and a key recommendation of the committee, telling ABC Radio last week that the authority’s management had received a petition signed by 87 of the state’s 150-odd sheriff’s officers opposing a move to transfer their employment under the auspices of the Department of Correctional Services.

The covering letter, seen by InDaily, says “we are united in our decision to have the recommendation of transferring to DCS be taken off the table immediately”.

“We need to make it clear that the recommendation has no support from the uniformed Sheriff’s Officers… it has not come from us and is not backed by us,” the document states.

“We do not want to come under the purview of the Department for Correctional Services,” it continues.

“We take pride in the work that we do and the service we provide in the courts… any such move would be detrimental to us and the work that we do in the courts.”

Speaking to InDaily this week, Kourakis doubled down on both his rejection of “endemic, systemic bullying or anything of that nature” within the Sheriff’s Office, and his criticism of the committee’s inquiry process, which he says relied too heavily on testimony given in camera which could not be independently assessed.

“If this is similar to other [parliamentary] reports… I think taxpayers would get much better value for many if more care was taken and more thought given to the way in which the investigation was conducted,” he told InDaily.

“There are things that can be done to improve the management, and we could have got on to these matters a lot earlier if there was better and more open disclosure and information about what was happening.”

Kourakis said “in effect this has taken two years” from the beginning of the inquiry.

“Two years’ delay in improving the Sheriff’s Office, and two years of much anxiety and concern by our management because they didn’t know where it was going in terms of the criticism of them… it really did cause worry for them and causes uncertainty in the workforce while they were waiting for this sort of thing to work through.

“And that comes back to the value of the committee’s work.”

Committee chair Justin Hanson fired back at Kourakis’s critique this week, telling The Advertiser that “parliament has accepted confidential evidence since time immemorial” and noting the 164 suppression orders imposed by SA courts last year.

“So it’s a bit rich of the Chief Justice to turn around now and say the parliamentary committee’s report should be disregarded because it accepted confidential evidence,” he said.

But Kourakis says “the comparison with suppression orders misses the point”.

“Courts make suppression orders in a very small proportion of cases either to protect victims or to ensure the integrity of jury trials – courts never make adverse judgments on secret evidence,” he told InDaily.

“A more apt comparison would be to imagine a law which authorised courts to determine objections to the fitness of parliamentarians to hold office – I doubt that many parliamentarians would happily resign if the courts were to decide they were unfit, on evidence that most of which was kept secret from them.”

Kourakis says feedback given through CAA’s own processes suggest issues such as working hours and management style are “areas of criticism I think a good number of Sheriff’s Officers have, but it’s not the matters raised by the report, by and large”.

“The way in which the report proceeds is really one of generalising from individual complaints to paint a picture, which led them to their recommendation [the office] be transferred [to DCS],” he said.

“It paints a picture by citing evidence, but without making a particular finding.”

In any workforce there are some workers who take an oppositional approach to management generally

He says he “disagrees” with the report’s assertions about the workplace culture.

“It can’t be right given the petition we’ve received from Sheriff’s Officers and the individual conversations I and others have had,” he insists.

He asserts that while “some of the complaints would have had a genuine basis… in any workforce there are some workers who take an oppositional approach to management generally”.

“Unless the material is made available to CAA so some context and fact checking can be done, it’s just not possible to sift out what has a real and genuine kernel and what doesn’t,” he said.

“That’s why I offered to look at the material confidentially – the committee decided not to take me up on that… [but] there’s no reason why except that it would have taken a bit of time.

“I don’t see why they couldn’t have consulted some of those individuals and asked them whether they’re happy for it to be sent to me – I know as a fact some of them would have.”

Kourakis also notes the Public Service Association, which represents many of the CAA employees, has also conferred with its members who had, according to an email sent to him in December, “expressed a preference at this time that they not come under the purview of DCS”.

“The PSA knows our structure [so] that lack of anything coming to us, especially from the PSA, also suggests there isn’t a problem,” he told InDaily.

However, the union strongly disagrees with this assertion – with general secretary Nev Kitchin insisting that while “members have made it pretty clear they don’t want to move to DCS”, there remain “systemic” issues that “go right through the culture of the place”.

“There’s a history of harassment, favouritism, retribution for speaking up… that’s what needs to change,” he told InDaily.

He said members want management to “acknowledge that that behaviour exists and put in place processes that ensure that that behaviour is not to be tolerated”.

A resolution to be voted on by union members in coming days reiterates the rejection of the move to DCS but also calls for “procedural fairness, open communication, support structures [and] a demonstrated commitment to transformation through honestly and openly addressing the behaviours and leaders who have not been exemplars”.

None of these leaders is identified explicitly and there is no suggestion the alleged culture is driven by the judiciary.

The resolution also asks that managers be trained in conflict management for treatment of staff, including understanding “the harm resulting from unfair treatment, bullying and harassment of all kinds”.

Kitchin said that “given the resolution largely came from membership feedback we are confident the motion represents the issues of concern to members”.

The fact is a parliamentary inquiry found there are serious problems with the culture and practices when it comes to the management of staff

The union is also concerned Kourakis’s own public statement in November last year, after the committee report was tabled, may have clouded the debate, by comparing the work of many Sheriff’s Officers to similar DCS functions that were currently outsourced to private providers.

Kitchin argued that comparison was regarded by the union as “a direct threat to privatise most of their jobs”.

“The Chief Justice’s response to the [inquiry] report has largely been to divert the focus to whether Sheriff’s Officers are employed in CAA or DCS – while threatening them with privatisation – rather than addressing the culture and practices within the [courts],” he said.

“The fact of the matter is a parliamentary standing committee inquiry found there are serious problems with the culture and practices of the CAA when it comes to the management of staff [and that] harassment, favouritism, and retribution for speaking up are unfortunately characteristic of the management of the courts. The inquiry report described a festering culture of belligerence, bullying and grossly inadequate management…

“The PSA has been dealing with members’ issues in the Courts for years [so] the Chief Justice should have been aware there have been serious issues arising from the management of the CAA.

“Members know what those issues are – and they want them fixed.”

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