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“Justice is not an optional extra”: Pallaras torpedoes "part-time" Rau

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The State Government has heard repeated warnings about chronic underfunding in the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office and done “bugger all” to address them, former DPP Stephen Pallaras claims.

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InDaily revealed yesterday that the public prosecutors’ office was facing a shake-up after an independent review found it was the worst resourced and among the most overworked in the nation – consequently delivering the nation’s lowest conviction rates, highest case withdrawal rates and longer-than-average case durations.

But Pallaras, whose tenure was marked by regular spats with the Labor Government that appointed him, says successive Attorneys-General had been thoroughly briefed about the funding disparities but that “key issues in the office have been ignored by Government” because “they want to keep control over what happens in that sector”.

“We never made it onto the funding priority list… and [the office] will suffer until there is a change in attitude or a change in Government,” Pallaras told InDaily.

“This question of systemic change has been spoken about in committee after committee after committee, for more than a decade after I came to the office.

“They [the Government] just talk about it and then do nothing.”

Pallaras said issues of underfunding bedevilled his office long before he took the role.

“[Previous DPP the late] Paul Rofe was complaining about a lack of resources [and] I certainly let it be known to everybody in Government that we were struggling, but not much has happened,” he said.

Attorney-General John Rau has ruled out addressing budget increases for the office in the short-term, pending a raft of efficiencies recommended in the review, but Pallaras insists: “It’s a question of money; it’s totally a question of money.”

“He has a responsibility to provide a service – that’s not an optional extra,” he said.

“The justice system is something Government is obligated to provide.

“[Rau] knows the shortfalls and he’s done bugger all about it.”

Pallaras also questioned the A-G’s workload, with Rau juggling the portfolio among other high-profile ministries, including child protection reform, planning and the City of Adelaide.

“Rau has nine portfolios – why on earth does he think that the state of SA is not entitled to a full-time Attorney-General?” he said.

“It has got me beat; how he thinks he can manage a portfolio of such significance to this community with one ninth of his time is beyond belief, and just indicates an attitude that’s wrong and suggests why things have gone so far off the rails.

“We need a full-time Attorney-General.”

Rau told InDaily he “of course” rejected the assertion.

“I don’t know what particular powers he has to see into things that deeply and pontificate on subjects like that, but if you ask around the place you’d find I’m anything but a part-time A-G,” he said.

“[My] department would tell you I’m probably here too much and keep them too busy.”

He said most of his office staff would have to “pick themselves up off the floor after falling down laughing” at the suggestion, before adding: “They’d compose themselves eventually, I suppose.”

Rau told FIVEaa yesterday in a different context that his wealth of portfolios “assists” his performance in the justice portfolio.

“Bizarrely enough, in some respects, because it means I have got a whole bunch of other perspectives on many issues, which actually I think round you out [and] make you a little bit more of a three-dimensional person,” he said.

On the issue of underfunding, Rau said Pallaras’s claims were “just not correct”.

“I can tell you that in successive budget rounds the most protected agency within the A-G’s department has always been the DPP,” he said.

“We’ve done everything we possibly can to minimise the impact of budgetary issues on the DPP.”

He said there was little point throwing additional funding at the agency before the review’s mooted administration changes and the results of his ongoing justice-sector reforms, which he hopes to complete by year’s end, but he noted “there’s none so blind as those that refuse to see”.

Former Attorney Michael Atkinson said when he assumed the role “one of my Liberal Party parliamentary colleagues advised me that the DPP was running on the smell of an oily rag, to use his words”.

“About midway though my term we did start to get real money for it… and I didn’t have much complaining about underfunding after that,” he said.

But Pallaras dismissed the mid-2000s budget increases as “double-talk”, saying “what we were given over several years was make-up pay to cover items that we previously didn’t have to pay for”.

He said when he made public statements he was attacked personally, and “really I was being told ‘know your place’.

“Certainly [then Premier Mike] Rann wanted to be in charge of the image his Government was projecting [of being] tough on crime and in control, but he wasn’t tough on crime, and he wasn’t in control.”

While unsurprised that the report revealed a funding and staffing shortfall, Pallaras questioned the finding that the average caseload per prosecutor was around 20 – the second highest in the nation, behind Queensland on 26.6.

“Some of my prosecutors had over 100 files,” he said, “so I don’t know how that’s dropped so dramatically, I’m not sure what measures they’re using to come to that figure.”

He said there was a clear need “to update our computer systems, which they’re not prepared to do”, revealing such was the ad hoc nature of the technology that prosecutors “couldn’t even talk to police department, couldn’t talk to courts”.

“Our system was not compatible,” he said.

But despite repeated calls to address the issue, he said, “that hasn’t happened and it won’t happen”.

“They’re just whistling in the dark.

“It’s a failed system, and I think that’s been recognised… it was hopeless – it did not work.

“We had issues in our department that were not sharable with others, specific questions that needed to be dealt with, specific needs that needed to be dealt with. We couldn’t find out, for instance, where a file was in the police department, or who had been arrested, without physically talking to people over the phone or meeting with them.”

Pallaras said what was required was for the “courts, prisons, police, prosecutors and probably legal aid” to adopt a shared IT system, but he said police had opposed such a suggestion on security grounds.

He said his own office review also suggested the need for additional staff, including more prosecutors.

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