Response to John Lawrence SC

The following statement by CLANT President Russell Goldflam is made with the unanimous support of the CLANT Committee, which has authorised its publication on the CLANT website.

The Northern Land Council’s July 2017 edition of Land Rights News features an article by former CLANT President John Lawrence SC titled Australia’s Morality Play 2017 in which he articulates his outrage at the parlous state of the Northern Territory youth justice system. The article is passionately argued and makes many good points. However, it also includes an unfair, misleading and disingenuous attack on Northern Territory lawyers, on CLANT and on myself. I reject that attack. Lawrence particularly complains about three matters: my evidence to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory; my response to criticism of Local Court Judge Greg Borchers; and CLANT’s conduct of the 16th Bali conference in June 2017.

  • The Royal Commission evidence: Lawrence extracts a handful of words from my  detailed Statement and several hours of oral evidence on 13 December 2016 (from P-798 to P-813) and 14 December 2016 (P-816 to P-865), to give the impression that I had cravenly acquiesced to the harshly punitive approach to youth justice of the previous NT Government. It is of course a matter for the Royal Commission to assess my evidence, but readers are invited to peruse it for themselves and form their own view. Lawrence further complains that I was “dispiriting, negative and chilling”, because I gave evidence regarding the Territory’s demographic circumstances which underlines the continuing pressures on the youth justice system. It is noteworthy that precisely the same point had been made by former DPP Richard Coates in his paper “Law and Disorder in Aboriginal Communities” delivered to the 2011 Bali Conference – presided over by then CLANT President John Lawrence. In my evidence, I made twenty specific positive proposals for the improvement of the NT youth justice system. Lawrence does not refer to any of these, or make any himself.
  • Response to conduct of Judge Borchers: Lawrence excoriates me for not being sufficiently harsh in my criticism of Judge Borchers when I was interviewed by Guardian Australia, and indignantly complains that I offered the excuse that Borcher’s “comments needed to be seen in a broader context!” Lawrence does not elaborate on the “broader context”, but fairly, Guardian Australia did:

“In a way what he said – even though I disagree with his comments strongly – they are consistent with a widely held view in the community, including views published by people at the apex of our community.” Goldflam referred to his previous testimony before the royal commission, which drew attention to “Facebook rants” by the former chief minister Adam Giles and “strident comments” by former attorney general John Elferink. “That sort of demonisation from the top individuals lends an air of legitimacy to similar views being expressed lower down the chain of command.”

Again, readers are invited to read the full report and form their own view. What Lawrence knew but does not state (as a member of the CLANT Committee at the relevant time, he had been briefed in detail), was that CLANT has been actively, assertively and constructively engaged in addressing the issue of judicial bullying (whether directed at counsel or parties) for a considerable period, as I explained in my closing remarks to delegates to the 2017 Bali conference:

“Over the last six months the CLANT Committee has given close attention to the issue of complaints about judicial conduct. Much of our concern is about judicial bullying, the subject of a powerful paper delivered by Suzan Cox at our 2013 conference. On behalf of CLANT, I recently prepared and filed a detailed complaint directed to Chief Judge John Lowndes about judicial conduct on the bench. I am pleased to tell you that [the Chief Judge] responded as one would expect: the complaint was adjudicated, with procedural fairness accorded to the judge concerned, and a substantively fair outcome. Importantly, the process was conducted discreetly, to avoid the very serious risk, had the matter been dealt with in the glare of media publicity, that confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice would be undermined.”

CLANT made a further complaint about judicial conduct to Chief Judge Lowndes on 11 July 2017, and informed Lawrence of this. The implication that CLANT had sat on its hands is unfair, misleading and incorrect.

  • The CLANT Conference: Lawrence complains that the CLANT Conference ignored the issues the subject of the Royal Commission. He is wrong. In fact, at least 11 of the 22 papers delivered at the conference addressed issues that are being considered by or are at least touched on by the Royal Commission. Among these were papers on Aboriginal disadvantage in the justice system, human rights for youth detainees, innovative NT sentencing proposals, patterns of violent offending in the NT, the conduct of NT campaigns to address injustice, and the NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement. Of equal importance, the conference was an opportunity to constructively discuss with senior members of both the judiciary and the executive, including the Attorney-General, the very issues Lawrence is agitating.

I don’t mind the robust cut and thrust of debate. But let’s not be distracted from the profoundly important matters that Lawrence, CLANT and myself agree on: the NT’s youth justice system is broken, and we need to work together to fix it.

Russell Goldflam

Alice Springs

2 August 2017