Friday, 19 October 2012

Is NSW Minister Chris Hartcher just dumb or deceitful?

Yesterday in parliament Energy Minister Chris Hartcher suggested because I, in my former capacity as a Public Defender for the State of NSW, represented a person that some might refer to as "a well known criminal identity", that somehow that should impact on either my character or integrity.

Many people in the community would understand that a barrister cannot refuse to accept a brief to appear in a criminal trial because of the person who is to be represented, or the nature of the matter. It is a fundamental plank of the entire criminal justice system.

A public defender is a barrister appointed by the Governor, and paid by the state, to represent people in serious criminal matters who cannot afford to pay for a barrister, and who are granted legal aid.

A public defender cannot refuse to accept a brief from a person granted legal aid either because the charges are distasteful or the accused has some notoriety. To do so would be improper, a breach of the rules of the Bar, and a breach of the Public Defenders Act.

I said in my inaugural speech to parliament I said:

"In 1987 I was appointed as a Public Defender for the State of New South Wales. That was my dream job. As a young boy I imagined myself standing up in front of a jury advocating the innocence of my client, and becoming a public defender fulfilled that ambition. My great passion was and is the criminal law. The criminal law gave me an opportunity to make a difference. The difference was not made when appearing in high-profile cases but in rural and regional areas of New South Wales, where one can go quietly about one's profession fighting against oppression, standing up for people who have never had a chance in life and persuading courts to give the best the law can—reasonable and fair decisions. Being able to convince a court, in accordance with the law, to release young offenders, particularly Aboriginal offenders, and giving them a chance in life, has given me about the greatest sense of achievement I could have had.

My election to this House meant resigning the office of public defender and leaving a floor of talented and dedicated hardworking barristers. This was perhaps the hardest thing I have ever had to do."

I wear my former office as a public defender as a badge of honour. I am immensely proud that during my time, that with my limited ability, I was able to serve the criminal justice system of this state. 

Some of the most eminent members of the bar have served the office of Public Defender. Many today are serving Judicial Officers, one currently a Justice of the High Court of Australia. To suggest to any of us that our character or integrity is affected because we represented a particular client, on a particular charge, is outrageous, but when it come from a senior member of the Executive Government it is scandalous.

In a personal explanation to the House yesterday I described Minister Hartcher's conduct as grossly improper.

There is always political frivolity during question time in parliament, but there are greater obligations on a senior Minister of the crown. Minister Hartcher was either being deceitful or was just plain ignorant. If it was ignorance, then that would be greater a worry to the people of NSW.

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