A Judge Briefly Put An 18-Year-Old In A Cell To Give Him A "Scare": Report

Magistrate Dominique Burns.

Dean Lewins / AAPIMAGE

Magistrate Dominique Burns.

An Australian magistrate has been referred to parliament to determine whether she should be sacked after she was found to have engaged in “serious misbehaviour”, including putting an 18-year-old who had never been in custody before in a jail cell to “give him a bit of a scare”.

Magistrate Dominique Burns was suspended in mid-2017 following complaints about her behaviour as she presided over Port Macquarie Local Court on the New South Wales north coast.

In a report made public on Thursday, a Judicial Commission panel made up of two judges and a former NSW police commissioner found that 16 of the 17 allegations made against Burns were substantiated.

The findings came after a hearing in November 2018, where Burns testified that she had struggled under a “crushing” workload that had impacted her mental health and led to mistakes.

The panel found that Burns had committed a “serious abuse of power” when she unlawfully detained an 18-year-old who had appeared before her on charges of driving while disqualified.

She sent the teenager to the cells at Port Macquarie Local Court and called the lawyers acting in the case to the corridor outside her office, where she said something along the lines of “Just to let you both know, I’ve put [Mr B] in the dock to give him a bit of a scare”, the report said.

The18-year-old was “frightened, teary and shaken” after being placed in the cells, the panel found.

Other substantiated complaints against Burns included that she had sentenced people to periods that exceeded the maximum penalty for offences, and attempted to influence prosecutors to lay extra charges against accused people.

On a number of occasions, Burns denied bail to the accused person in chambers, before they had a chance to argue their case in court. This was a “manifest denial of procedural fairness”, the report said.

She was cleared of an allegation that she had run a hearing in a way that suggested a defendant would be granted bail if he pleaded guilty.

Burns’ mental illness was a contributing factor to her behaviour, but not the sole reason for her conduct, the report said.

The panel found she was now in remission from her mental illness, but the evidence she gave at the hearing was “of concern” and suggested she would behave in the same way in the future.

“We wish to make it clear that a judicial officer who experiences anxiety and depression remains capable of acting in accordance with proper standards of judicial behaviour and of discharging the duties of office,” the report said.

“Nothing in this report should be understood as casting doubt on that proposition.”

The panel also rejected the argument that Burns was struggling under an unreasonable workload.

“There is no evidence that her Honour’s workload was ‘crushing’, inhumane, unsafe or akin to a ‘tsunami’ of work as it was described in submissions,” it said.

The panel concluded that Burns’ behaviour could justify her sacking, and referred her to the New South Wales parliament, where her fate will be determined later this year.

Judges in Australia are appointed by the government in each jurisdiction.

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