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Unprecedented inquiry into accused Magistrate "contentious"

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The South Australian magistrate accused by five women of misconduct has appointed a senior counsel to defend him in front of a conduct panel, former Judicial Conduct Commissioner Ann Vanstone has said, while revealing the panel’s inquiry has been “contentious”.

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Vanstone, who is also the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, told a parliamentary committee hearing this morning that a current judicial conduct panel inquiry has been delayed by debates about how the panel should take evidence.

She said while she had not attended any of the panel’s meetings, the misconduct allegations were being “hotly contested”.

The panel was appointed by Attorney-General Vickie Chapman in June after five women working in the law approached Vanstone’s office with misconduct complaints about Magistrate Simon Milazzo, who works in the civil jurisdiction of the Adelaide Magistrates Court.

Milazzo, who has denied impropriety, has been suspended from office while the judicial conduct panel investigates the complaints, which span a period of about seven years.

The judicial conduct panel is the first in the state’s history and is expected to produce a report at the end of its inquiry outlining its findings and recommendations, which will then be tabled in Parliament.

Members include former Court of Appeal president Trish Kelly, retired Supreme Court judge David Bleby and Australian Medical Association state vice-president Dr Chris Moy.

Responding to questions at this morning’s parliamentary committee about judicial conduct panels, Vanstone said it was up to panellists to decide how they receive evidence.

“Whether the panel will take evidence, whether it will allow cross-examination of, say, the complainant is a matter for the parties to argue about and for the panel to decide,” she said.

“I think, as far as I understand it, these matters have been quite contentious in the panel that’s sitting at present.  

“Certainly, a senior counsel’s been engaged for the person who’s been accused of various matters and I think the reason why there’s been a bit of a delay – and I don’t say it’s undue for a moment – is because a lot of those matters are being debated and rulings need to be made.

Vanstone, who resigned from the role as Judicial Conduct Commissioner earlier this week, said it was “so important” to have experienced people such as Kelly, Bleby and Moy as panellists on judicial conduct panels.

“You understand that I’m not there and I haven’t seen what’s happened, but yes, I think it’s absolutely essential to have people of that stature where allegations are hotly contested,” she said.

Vanstone said the judicial conduct panel was “entirely independent” and would dissolve at the end of its inquiry.

Her evidence came before a joint committee set up to investigate how state parliament should implement recommendations of a damning Equal Opportunity Commission review into harassment at Parliament House.

Vanstone has recommended that parliament adopt a code of conduct for MPs that explicitly bans parliamentarians from bullying or sexually harassing other members, parliamentary and departmental staff, and statutory officers.

But in a written submission to the committee, she warned that a code of conduct on its own was “symbolic only” and an independent complaints process was also needed to ensure that victims were properly heard.

Vanstone has recommended that Parliament give the Judicial Conduct Commissioner the additional role of Parliamentary Conduct Commissioner.

She said the Parliamentary Conduct Commissioner should have the power to appoint conduct panels tasked with investigating serious misconduct complaints against MPs.

Those panels, she said, would in turn have the power to recommend that an MP be removed from office following an investigation.

“What I’ve suggested is that machinery set out in the Judicial Conduct Commissioner Act could be utilised,” she said.

Vanstone resigned from the Judicial Conduct Commissioner this week arguing the role was incompatible with her responsibilities as ICAC.

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