Parramatta-based federal magistrate Joe Harman, believed to be mentally ill, has been suspended following criticism of his decisions in two family property disputes.
The magistrate's suspension comes after New South Wales magistrates Brian Maloney and Jennifer Betts, who also suffer from mental illness, were forced to plead to Parliament in June this year to retain their status as magistrates, following complaints of their conduct in court.
As The Sydney Morning Herald reports, Harman supposedly convicted and sentenced a man - who was being questioned about the whereabouts of a large sum of cash - for contempt of court after being dissatisfied with his answers. The man allegedly had dementia and spoke via an interpreter.
Harman reportedly said to the interpreter: "I want [him] to tell me where the $200,050 is and, if he either refuses to tell me or genuinely no longer has the money, he starts a jail sentence today".
On appeal of that decision, Chief Justice of the Family Court Diana Bryant found that Harman had failed to follow proper procedure to convict or imprison the man and said: "There had been no formal plea to the charge, no evidence, no findings, no conviction, no sentence imposed".
In another decision, Harman was reportedly criticised for dismissing an application to disqualify him from hearing a case in which a lawyer, whose relationship with Harman had reportedly suffered an "extremely hostile" breakdown, appeared.
Although Harman transferred the case to another magistrate, the Family Court found that proceedings had been "most irregular" and that procedural fairness rules had been "clearly breached".
The Federal Magistrates Court confirmed with SMH in a statement that Harman had agreed to be restricted to "non-sitting duties" for one month and would undertake "judicial education and counselling".
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