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Accused magistrate set to face state's first judicial conduct panel

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A South Australian magistrate subject to complaints by five women will face the state’s first judicial conduct panel, if the Attorney-General accepts a recommendation from the Judicial Conduct Commissioner.

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A short time ago, Ann Vanstone, the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, acting as the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, announced she had finished an investigation into a series of complaints about a serving magistrate, who was stood down last month pending the inquiries.

“I have today made a recommendation to the Attorney-General that she appoint a judicial conduct panel to inquire into and report on those complaints,” Vanstone said in a statement.

“The complaints relate to incidents involving five women who worked in various capacities at the courts. The complaints span a period of about seven years. The magistrate denies impropriety.”

It comes after InDaily revealed last month that Vanstone had launched a preliminary investigation into allegations the Magistrate sexually harassed a District Court judge’s associate in 2018.

In an interview with InDaily, Alice Bitmead, who is now a federal prosecutor, claimed she was made to feel like a “sexual object” after the Magistrate allegedly made repeated “inherently sexual” and “deeply uncomfortable” remarks to her at a work dinner and during office hours.

Vanstone revealed late today that her investigation covered not only Bitmead’s complaints, but complaints from four other women.

“A judicial conduct panel has not previously been appointed in this state,” she said.

“Under the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act 2015, it is to consist of two judicial officers – either current or former – and a lay person. Its role is to conduct an inquiry into matters referred to it and to report to the Attorney-General. Such a report would include the panel’s opinion as to whether removal of a judicial officer were justified. It has the powers of a Royal Commission.

“My own decision to make this recommendation does not involve my making factual findings about whether the alleged incidents occurred, or the circumstances of them; except to the extent necessary to inform my recommendation.

“Apart from providing the materials in my files to any panel which may be convened, my role in respect of these complaints has now concluded.

“I consider that it is in the public interest that I make this statement having regard to the publicity that was given to the April 2021 report by the Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner about harassment in the legal profession and also public allegations made by a legal officer who was formerly employed in the Courts.”

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said she was considering the recommendation.

“I note the Commissioner’s public statement and recommendation,” she said. “I will now consider her recommendation. No further comment will be made at this stage.”

Bitmead alleged the harassment occurred over three weeks in February 2018 while she worked in close proximity to the Magistrate, who InDaily has chosen not to name.

She claimed over that time, the Magistrate questioned whether her partner “fulfilled” her and made comments alluding to “how much he would like to have a relationship” with her.

Bitmead also alleged she tried raising a complaint with senior judicial officers in the months after the alleged harassment occurred, but has never received a response or apology in the years since.

The allegations prompted Chief Justice Chris Kourakis to launch a separate investigation into why Bitmead’s allegations were not brought to his attention in 2018.

An Equal Opportunity Commission review handed down in April found that 42 per cent of the 600 South Australian legal practitioners who responded to a survey reported experiencing sexual or discriminatory harassment at work.

Just under 13 per cent of those said the behaviour was perpetrated by members of the state’s judiciary.

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