A NSW judge has denied being told by a new magistrate she was “falling over”, would not make it to the end of the year and needed help with her job.
“If those words were spoken I would have done something,” testified Judge Christopher O’Brien, who was deputy chief magistrate at the time of the alleged conversation in February 2017.
“The words ‘falling over’ would ring alarm bells and I would take immediate steps … I would contact the chief magistrate and say ‘we have a problem’.”
He was giving evidence on Wednesday before the NSW Judicial Commission conduct division, which is hearing a string of misconduct complaints against magistrate Dominique Burns.
She became a magistrate in February 2015, was appointed to the Port Macquarie Local Court circuit in January 2016, went off sick in March 2017 and was suspended in June 2017.
The conduct under review – which occurred between June 22, 2016 and February 23, 2017 – involved 17 cases which fell in seven broad categories of “serious departures from proper standards”.
They included misuse of detention powers, imposing sentences exceeding maximum penalties for the crimes and trying to influence the police prosecutor to cause further charges to be laid against people.
The magistrate accepts she made mistakes but her barrister Arthur Moses SC contended that her crushing workload of a “tsunami” of cases contributed to mental health issues.
Judge O’Brien testified that as deputy chief magistrate he assisted at Port Macquarie for a week from February 20, 2017 and found the circuit busy and involving complex sentencing matters.
Asked by Mr Moses if he recalled meeting with magistrate Burns and the registrar on his last day, Judge O’Brien said he did not recall a meeting in her chambers but said he had spoken with her.
He denied a suggestion she said: “Chris I can’t keep going, I am falling over, I am not going to make it to the end of the year, I need some help”.
He said a Port Macquarie Legal Aid officer expressed concerns to him relating to Ms Burns and appeals and bails but he did not pass on the information to her to give her feedback or insight.
“It was the raising of a concern by the Legal Aid Commission, it was not a complaint,” he said.
“I didn’t see the point in poisoning the relationship.”
His job was to be supportive of her, not to discipline her.
Earlier NSW chief magistrate Judge Graeme Henson testified that lack of resources was part of the reason why magistrate Burns March 2016 request for court assistance to clear backlogs was rejected.
“(That is) undoubtedly true because the courts at that stage had been cut by eight magistrates,” he said.
The hearing continues.