THE SOUTH Australian Government last week committed itself to a “comprehensive, Australia-wide search” for a new Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
While the media commented on the unlikely appeal of the role, as well as public confidence in it, the Law Society of South Australia acknowledged the “sterling” performance of the former DPP. In an assessment of the Office of the DPP, the Society also said it should remain independent.
Following the resignation last week of Paul Rofe QC, SA Law Society president David Howard said Rofe had given “sterling service” to the community in his role. But it was disappointing that his “very substantial excellent service” and contribution to the criminal justice system in the state had been overshadowed by recent controversies.
Rofe said his resignation came last week for two reasons.
The first was medical advice “that if I continue in the job, the stress levels that I have experienced, there is a very real possibility that I will have another stroke similar to the one — or more serious than the one — I had in 1999”.
The second reason: “I really want to take the personalities out of the tensions that have been existing between government and my office and I think removing myself personally will hopefully ensure the future stability and operation of the office”.
Public confidence has been eroded in the state’s criminal justice system following the resignation of the DPP, SA Liberal Shadow A-G Robert Lawson said last week. He argued the affair had been completely mishandled by the Rann Government.
Law Society president Howard agreed that “during the last two weeks there has been sustained political pressure upon and media speculation about the DPP, arguably to the point where public confidence in the Office has been lost”.
A central issue in the media’s interest in the resignation was a case involving Paul Nemer, who was originally given a $100 bond for shooting a newsagent in the face. Reacting to public outrage, the Government appealed against the sentence and Nemer was jailed.
Regarding how the role was seen by the public, Rofe himself said the Office had been “destabilised” to some extent. “The reflections on me personally in the Nemer case obviously transfer across to the kids who are working for me.”
Shadow A-G Lawson implied that this interference was not a positive one. “The Government … has sought to undermine and discredit [Rofe]; they have politicised and interfered in what is supposed to be an independent office,” Lawson said.
The Law Society of South Australia, at least in some respects, agreed with the Shadow A-G that there should be an objective “of ensuring the independence of that Office from interference by the executive government in particular cases”.
The Government should legislate to re-establish the independence of the Office of the DPP, “which it claims to espouse”, Howard said. “The DPP is sufficiently accountable through reporting procedures to parliament. Those procedures are, I believe, sufficient to satisfy any reasonable demand for accountability and transparency.”
The fallout from the Nemer case stays with us, Howard said. “Let there be reasoned rational debate about what should be done. But let not the present situation with an ever-present threat of political interference in the prosecutorial process continue.”