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 1/12/2011 4:02 PM


Ron Cahill
Source: Stateline Canberra
Published: Friday, September 10, 2010 10:36 AEST
Expires: Thursday, December 9, 2010 10:36 AEST

Former chief magistrate Ron Cahill reflects on his time on the ACT bench, and the controversial end to his career.

CHRIS KIMBALL, PRESENTER: But first, Ronald John Cahill stood down as Chief Magistrate of the ACT late last year.

His notable career ended in ignoble fashion.

His legal career took him from crown prosecutor to the Magistrate's bench and in the process he judged some high profile cases, and became committed to a number of causes, from AFL to mental health.

His own ill health and allegations made by other magistrates that he had interfered with the course of justice saw an end to his 32 years on the bench.

All investigations into his conduct have now been dropped, and Ron Cahill believes his reputation has been restored.

He spoke with the ABC's court reporter Katherine Pohl.

KATHERINE POHL, REPORTER: Ron Cahill, welcome to Stateline.

It was a tumultuous end to your career. How did you feel having to step down in such controversial circumstances?

RON CAHILL, FORMER ACT CHIEF MAGISTRATE: Well I don't know about stepping down.

I agreed because it was so close to my retirement to simply do what I had to complete which is what I had planned anyway and that was OK.

But I think the injury to me and all of the kerfuffle that occurred following it was almost unbelievable.

KATHERINE POHL: The misconduct allegations against you stem from a case involving a high profile Canberran whose name was suppressed.

You gave material to the visiting magistrate who was meant to be hearing that matter. What was your intention when you gave him or passed on that material?

RON CAHILL: Well, to be frank, I had made my research officer available to him and the aim was to give him background material on the relevant sections because he was from Victoria after all, relevant sections and law that might anticipate from the ACT perspective to arise to make his task easier.

He was free of course to do what he wished with it, but certainly not to influence him. I think more of the man than that.

KATHERINE POHL: Would you have taken the same action as your colleagues did?


KATHERINE POHL: You can't see where they came from in what they did?

RON CAHILL: No, but that's up to them.

People have different perspectives on things, Katherine.

So, no, I think I would have dealt with it quite differently.

KATHERINE POHL: Looking back to the beginning of your career, why did you decide to join the judiciary?

RON CAHILL: Well, I came to Canberra straight out of law school and I was a prosecutor for eight years and I always had an abiding interest in the criminal law and I had been involved in prosecutions and in fact I'd headed the prosecutions unit when the police prosecutors came out of our courts and were replaced by professional prosecutors.

And I didn't plan to be a magistrate. When the opportunity came and I was asked I thought to myself, well, I love people, I like dealing with the court atmosphere and I thought this is an aspect I hadn't really considered.

I was only 32 years of age but I thought well let's find this challenge and see how we go, so that all happened 32 years ago.

KATHERINE POHL: And what did you set out to achieve?

RON CAHILL: Well I set out to achieve an appropriate system and an appropriate system of justice, justice for victims but also justice for offenders and trying to get the appropriate result in difficult cases.

KATHERINE POHL: And what about in your role as Chief Magistrate?

RON CAHILL: As Chief Magistrate, I believe the appropriate role for a Chief Magistrate is to use the Latin primus inter pares, that's first among equals, whilst you need to preserve the individual integrity and responsibility of individual judges someone has to take or magistrate, someone has to take that overall responsibility for the direction of the court and making policy decisions and appropriate relations with the Government.

But it's a difficult task.

KATHERINE POHL: You have taken on many roles at the Magistrates Court including the position of the coroner. Tell me about some of the more memorable cases you that heard over your years.

RON CAHILL: Well it's hard to remember I suppose, I think one of the most important cases was probably I'Anson inquest where the police unfortunately had resorted to fire arms in a very difficult situation where a knife had been used against them and someone had been shot.

That person was deeply psychotic and isolated in the community and a great kerfuffle arose as to the role of the mental health branch, doctors and police in relation to such cases and they often are the very difficult cases that a coroner has to deal with it.

In that particular case we really saw the start of more defined policies about the use of force in relation to patients in difficult situations and that was many years ago now, but that has been a lot more refined thought and the problem still exists and now of course we look at taser sprays and sprays and tasers and that's developed.

But even now there's still problems, but the process was able to be used to have all the parts of the system in a cooperative way that's, the police, the mental health people to come to a memorandum of understanding as to how they would act conjointly and how they'd consult each other in an effort to get a result that was more appropriate in very tragic circumstances and avoid those tragedies.

I think that was the start of a lot of changes.

KATHERINE POHL: Some Canberrans might remember that you also worked on the Colin Winchester case.


KATHERINE POHL: What was that like?

RON CAHILL: That was big part of my life.

It went for six years.

The whole of Canberra was stunned because Colin Winchester was a well respect and the most senior police officer in the Territory.

And it simply pulled up in his driveway and was shot without provocation, without really any knowledge of what had occurred.

Of course because he was such a pivotal investigator in the AFP set up previously and at the time of his death, we looked at all sorts of interest groups that might have a grudge against him, people from the so called mafia connection, bikie groups, other people who had grudges against him in an endeavour to sift out motivation and groups.

And I think we looked at a total of 78 different suspects or groups in a five year period.

And of course the interesting part of the inquest was there are a number of other unfortunate or unexpected results that affected careers of policeman and other people, which unfortunately was a corollary of it all and that was quite a challenge.

KATHERINE POHL: After working on it for so long, are you still confident that you came to the right decision in that inquest?

RON CAHILL: Well, I don't want to comment on guilt or innocence, that is a jury question and of course even now the person that was ultimately committed for trial and convicted is still challenging and maintaining his innocence.

All I will say is my job was to hear the inquest.

In those days if it became obvious that at the end of the inquest there was sufficient evidence the job of the coroner/magistrate was to say there's sufficient evidence to put this matter before a jury and that's what happened.

I am absolutely certain of that but of course what happens after that the evidence probably was much more extensive by the time it got to the jury and those jurors had to consider it over a very lengthy period and they came to a decision, that's how our system works.

So my subjective opinion really doesn't matter, but obviously the evidence in my view was certainly quite strong enough to go to trial.

KATHERINE POHL: Do you agree that the relationship between the ACT's chief justice and the attorney general has been quite bitter at times and even yourself you've had some tensions between government?

RON CAHILL: Well, I wouldn't want to comment on Chief Justice Higgins' relationships, he can speak for himself.

The role of a chief judicial officer is often difficult and I can appreciate how from the judiciary's point of view, whatever court it is, they'll have on view of how things will happen, the government and the attorney general will have another and they may also have financial considerations too and budgets don't necessarily stop at the court door, it's that.

But I really think the whole question of court governance needs to be visited.

KATHERINE POHL: So is it unworkable at the moment?

RON CAHILL: No, it is not unworkable. I think we have got there. I managed to make it work for 24 years as chief.

But there will be tensions, there will be tensions. But I mean I think some of the issues will be better resolved if that structure was in place.

At the moment, the interplay of the judiciary and the executive in particular aren't sufficiently balanced.

KATHERINE POHL: You left the chief magistrate's job abruptly to say the least. Do you have any unfinished business?

RON CAHILL: Unfinished business, well I think my life has to go on. I hope some of the initiatives I perhaps failed to achieve would be carried on, some of them I've mentioned in our interview today.

The other thing I'm proud of is achieving the building we achieved; I mean that was in very difficult economic times.

I know Terry Higgins and his colleagues would wish they'd have the same luck as we did because we did get a good building as a result, that's something I'm proud of.

I also haven't mentioned, I'm quite proud of the domestic violence and restraining order system we set up. We were the first in Australia to attempt mediation or alternative dispute resolution when someone was not involved in crimes involving domestic violence but had issues about obtaining orders.

And the people that work in that area are unheralded in my view, headed by the Melita Bozin, who's the present head of that unit.

In 1989 we started suggesting that and I can tell you at that particular time when we presenting our proposal to the national conference on violence at the (inaudible) we were howled down, but now everyone's doing it.

The only thing I regret is that I don't think it's given enough emphasis or support and the people doing that, that are facing up to people in conflict, every day of the week and I don't know what the current figures are, probably 75 to 80 per cent of those being solved and agreed to by negotiation is a magnificent result, saving people a lot of pain.

Because after all, you can't solve by any legislation the underlying social problems involved with a domestic violence issue or a restraining order situation.

All you can do is justifiably put in place a protection mechanism that can be used to protect people.

KATHERINE POHL: Thank you, Ron Cahill.

RON CAHILL: Thank you.
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ForumForumNew South WalesNew South WalesNew South Wales Parent ForumNew South Wales Parent ForumName and Shame ...Name and Shame ...CORRUPT JUDGE RON CAHILLCORRUPT JUDGE RON CAHILL