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Court of Appeal President issues ‘note of caution’ to magistrates

The President of Queensland’s highest court has issued a note of caution to the state’s 101 magistrates, warning of the possible “unanticipated consequences’’ of sanctions imposed on people who wilfully disrupt court proceedings.

Recently appointed Queensland Court of Appeal President Debra Mullins yesterday (12 July) proffered the warning in dismissing an appeal by Natalie Bianka May, in relation to a series of Magistrates Court appearances and a failed District Court appeal during which she was deemed to have been disruptive during proceedings.

At the conclusion of her ruling, in which Ms May is refused leave to appeal, Justice Mullins adds a “note of caution” to magistrates when exercising their powers under section 40 of the Justices Act 1886 (Qld) (the Act) to penalise people who insult or interrupt judicial officers of court officials during proceedings.

It pertains to the magistrates decision which could impact in Ms May’s future immigration status.

“A note of caution,” Justice Mullins said.

“The power conferred on a magistrate under s40 of the Act is an important provision to enable a magistrate to exercise full control over the proceeding in the courtroom, when a person in the courtroom behaves in a way that does not show proper respect for the institution of the court or for the magistrate, such as behaving in an insulting manner towards the magistrate or another person in the courtroom, interrupting the proceeding or disobeying a lawful order or direction of the magistrate.

“There are many occasions when a magistrate may feel frustrated by the conduct of a litigant in person, a party, a witness or even a lawyer, but a magistrate should be cautious about recourse to s40 of the Act in order to avoid unanticipated consequences, such as occurred in this matter for the immigration status of Ms May.”

Justice Mullins, in a just published 11-page decision, noted the genesis for the appeal was in connection to Ms May’s behaviour in the Mossman Magistrates Court in 2017 during which Ms May and a co-accused represented themselves to defend a stealing charge.

As Justice Mullins explained: “Ms May and her husband had been charged with stealing.”

“That charge was listed for trial in the Mossman Magistrates Court on 12 October 2017. They were appearing for themselves.

“When the hearing commenced, the people in the courtroom were Ms May and her husband, the police prosecutor Senior Constable Mitchell, the court services officer and the registrar of the Court who was performing duties as an Acting Magistrate.”

As the proceedings continued, Ms May on numerous occasions interrupted the prosecutor during his submissions which resulted in the Acting Magistrate saying “if someone is speaking from the bar table, unless I interject, you be quiet and wait until they’re finished speaking.”

Justice Mullins said Ms May again interrupted proceedings by telling the court she was “losing her concentration and that it was unfair as she wanted to finish her submissions”.

The exchange prompted the following:

Acting Magistrate: “Sit down.”

Ms May: “All right then. This is an unfair trial. I’ve been screamed at by the (Acting Magistrate).

Acting Magistrate: “This is – no, listen madam. Listen. Listen to me now. This is my court, not yours. You will follow my instructions. If I wish to ask you something and clarify it is important that I do so.

Ms May: “I want to finish my submissions. It is important as well.”

Acting Magistrate: “You’ll have your opportunity later to make submissions to me, if I decide the matter proceeds today. You are merely complicating the process by persisting and speaking over me when I try to speak to you.”

Ms May: “Not correct. I have been interrupted by the (Acting Magistrate) many times now. I did not have a fair chance to present…”

Acting Magistrate: “All right. Take the defendant into custody. When she’s prepared to comply with my requirements…”

Police prosecutor: “(Ms May) you’re under arrest.”

Ms May: “Why? No. For what? This is unfair. The judge is biased.”

As a result of that interaction and attempt by the prosecutor to take the defendant into custody, Ms May allegedly obstructed her police officer as he tried to detain her for an alleged contempt of court.

When the case returned to court before a different magistrate – Jacqui Payne – Ms May was found guilty of obstructing the police officer – but was discharged with no penalty or conviction recorded. The charge of contempt of court was also discontinued.

Ms May then attempted to appeal Ms Payne’s decision under section 222 of the Act in the District Court. That hearing proceeded in Ms May’s absence after she failed to have the case adjourned as a result of her travelling abroad. The appeal failed.

On 9 June, Ms May appealed Brisbane District Court Judge Michael Burnett AM’s ruling in the Supreme Court of Queensland before Justice Mullins.

Yesterday, Justice Mullins refused Ms May applications for leave to appeal and to adduce further evidence.

However, Justice Mullins did conclude her ruling with a general note of caution to Queensland magistrates pertaining to unintended consequences that may occur when s40 of the Act is exercised by the court.

Read the decision.

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