IN THE face of reports that his office has been unable to account for its efficiency, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, has accused the NSW Government of underfunding “an essential part of the core business of government”.
According to a report released recently by the Audit Office of NSW, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) has not been adequately transparent in its reporting on efficiency, and it has not been able to provide sufficient information about the costs of its services or on how staff use their time.
While acknowledging that the ODPP can improve on the way it records and reports on its efficiency, and agreeing with many of the report’s recommendations in this area, Cowdery has defended the office’s efficiency.
“The ODPP has consistently operated within budget for over 20 years. The government would not be allocating funds to the extent of $95 million every year if the money was not being accounted for,” he said.
“All staff and Crown prosecutors are managed and supervised in their daily work. The issue is not that they are not working professionally and effectively — the issue is that there are not presently sufficient records of precisely what they do and precisely how those activities are reflected in cost,” he said.
Cowdery has also responded to the report’s claim that while the ODPP’s case load has fallen over the last five years, its budget has increased by more than 40 per cent and its staff numbers by more than 10 per cent.
“The figures quoted are misleading and without proper explanation,” he said. According to Cowdery, the budget increase over that time (which he said is actually four years, not five) accounts for rises in salary costs, the expansion of the Witness Assistance Service by 26 positions (which he says accounts for most of the staff increase), and dedicated funding for the ongoing Criminal Case Conferencing Scheme. It also covered the implementation of a “Base Budget Review” by an independent group, which according to Cowdery, actually recommended that the ODPP receive a substantial budget increase to enable it to function properly.
Further, Cowdery said, workloads have actually increased over this time as cases have become more complicated, time consuming and labour intensive, and employees are feeling the strain.
“The agreed caseload limits for lawyers have been exceeded across the state. Staff work through the night and weekends to be able to proceed professionally and flexible leave is not being taken, despite managers’ attempts to reduce leave balances. This situation just cannot continue,” he said.
“The government seems unable to acknowledge the financial strains on this essential part of the core business of government, and to respond appropriately. Instead it shoots the messenger. While it provides more funds for police and prisons, it cuts all the services in between,” he said.
Cowdery has also spoken out against the report’s recommendation that an executive director be introduced into the ODPP who would have the same or greater status as the deputy directors, and who would report directly to the director.
While not necessarily opposed to the introduction of a senior financial and business manager, Cowdery’s concern is that the proposed position is very senior and could also be reporting directly to the government, which would threaten the ODPP’s legitimacy.
“The Attorney-General has decided, for the present, that he wants the [executive director] to report to him as well [as the director],” he said. “Any appointment to the ODPP made by the government that answers in any capacity to Attorney-General undermines the independence of the ODPP.”
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