New Chief Justice puts ACT’s high Indigenous incarceration rate on priority list

Ian Bushnell 23 November 2021 15
Chief Justice Lucy McCallum

New ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum: “It can’t just come from white fellas telling black fellas what to do. We have to engage respectfully.” Photos: Albert McKnight.

The ACT’s newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice has pinpointed the high number of Indigenous people in jail as a priority issue when she joins the bench in March next year.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury today announced the appointment of Justice Lucy McCallum from the NSW Court of Appeal to replace the retiring Chief Justice Helen Murrell.

Joining Mr Rattenbury outside the ACT Law Courts, Justice McCallum said that while she needed to learn more about the situation in the ACT, she was particularly interested in addressing what most Australian judges would regard as a national tragedy – the over-representation of Indigenous people in jail.

“One thing is to develop systems that engage respectfully with communities, but it can’t just come from white fellas telling black fellas what to do. We have to engage respectfully; hopefully, get Indigenous elders on board,” she said.

“Beyond that, I think I need to hold my fire and learn a bit more about the jurisdiction before I say what’s going to work.”

Justice McCallum also gave an insight into her view of the criminal justice system, saying that generally, there were too many people in prison, and while in some cases it could not be avoided sending people to jail, it was not a long-term solution.

“We need to look at any policies and proposals that would be directed to rehabilitation rather than endless punitive measures,” she said. “Overcrowding in prisons is a problem for all Australians, it’s expensive and it doesn’t necessarily address problems that take people to prisons.

“I’m interested in looking at any measures that improve incarceration rates and rehabilitation rates.”


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The pandemic has played havoc with courts across the nation, particularly jury trials, and dealing with whatever backlog has built up in the ACT will be a priority.

“It’s certainly one of the challenges for every court in the country,” Justice McCallum said.

“Most courts have managed to stay open and work through the pandemic but jury trials are an issue and it’s just a question of all the people in the judicial system working hard to clear the backlog.

“Certainly, I’ll be ready to hit the deck running to learn what the backlog is here and how we can best address it.”

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury announces Justice McCallum’s appointment outside the Law Courts.

Justice McCallum said it would help to be inheriting a bench in good shape and following on from a predecessor who oversaw the building of a new court that persevered through the pandemic.

“This court is an extremely strong court, and Chief Justice Murrell has left it in a very good state, and that makes it all the more exciting for me to come into that position and have the opportunity to listen to what people want to see the court do,” she said.

“My focus will be on building and cementing the ACT’s reputation as a place of excellent jurisprudence.”

The business community will also welcome her comments on delivering justice more quickly.

“I’m interested in the prospect of holding a commercial list that will give the commercial community an excellent centre of justice where they can come and have their disputes resolved quickly,” Justice McCallum said.

Justice McCallum started her legal career in NSW in 1986 after graduating from North Sydney Girls’ High School and going on to the University of NSW to complete her law degree.

Her extensive career included a stint as a prosecutor in Canberra from 1988-90. In 2008 she was appointed to the NSW Supreme Court and in 2019, the NSW Court of Appeal.

She will move to Canberra with her partner and “caravan of animals” in the new year.

The ACT Law Society welcomed her appointment saying she had presided over hundreds of high-profile criminal and civil proceedings, first as a barrister and then as a judge, garnering a reputation for scrupulous fairness.

“The ACT Law Society looks forward to welcoming Her Honour back to Canberra as our sixth Chief Justice,” said Law Society president Elizabeth Carroll.

Mr Rattenbury said the court’s other vacancy, for Justice John Burns who is also retiring, should be filled in February.

He paid tribute to Chief Justice Murrell, the first woman to lead the bench.

“Chief Justice Murrell has steered the ACT Supreme Court for the last eight years and all Canberrans owe her a debt of gratitude for her outstanding contributions to the ACT’s system of justice,” he said.


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15 Responses to New Chief Justice puts ACT’s high Indigenous incarceration rate on priority list
54-11 54-11 12:29 pm 30 Nov 21

Twice we’ve been victims of crime where the perpetrator has been caught. Both times, the perp was out on bail for a string of other events. Both times, the perp went to prison for these multiple crimes. And both times, the perp was Aboriginal and was granted lenience because of their Aboriginality. And in both cases, they went on to commit many more crimes.

The only way to protect the community and to prevent many more victims is to treat these lowlifes as anyone else – do the crime, do the time.

J D J D 5:16 pm 29 Nov 21

Oh Good Grief !
Nary a sympathetic word for instance about on-going national Deaths in Custody, and our systemic ill-consequences of underprivileged folks being inexorably trapped inside the Underclass, disproportionally affecting Australia’s first nations’ peoples especially. Trapped for lifetimes by malnutrition, inadequate schooling, and poverty.
Generations of unemployment and marginalisation.
So much simpler to Blame the Victims.
Equally, ACT Police have a hard job to mediate disfunctional behaviour (and also some patent criminality) among those in this Underclass.
The Justice system is still being stretched to its limits in this.
But, no; it’s so very simple – just Blame the Victims.

    jwinston jwinston 6:14 pm 29 Nov 21

    The only victims here are the victims of crime.

    J D J D 8:03 pm 29 Nov 21

    So how would you fix the problems ?

    jwinston jwinston 10:35 am 30 Nov 21

    Glad you asked JD. Allegedly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are incarcerated at higher rates than others.

    The indigenous community will not take the blame for their shortcomings as parents or leaders. Julie Tongs and other indigenous “leaders” always blame governments and the wider community for their woes

    Until Elders, leaders and parents start taking responsibility for their current situation, then things won’t improve.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:53 pm 29 Nov 21

    Since 2003–04, non-Indigenous people have been, on average, 1.6 times more likely to die in prison custody than Indigenous people.

    Spiral Spiral 11:35 pm 29 Nov 21

    And a lot of these “Deaths in Custody” are not really deaths in custody.

    They are deaths because the offender is not in custody. Because they are trying to prevent being arrested and die in a car accident or trying to swim a river or jumping over a wall without realising there is a big drop on the other side.

    If someone is stupid enough to drive off at high speed to try and avoid being arrested then their death is their responsibility.

jwinston jwinston 8:10 am 26 Nov 21

Cube Star said “Do people realise the judicial system is the end if the line for many disadvantaged people? Fix the core problems and stop trying to fix broken people.”

So how would you fix the problems?

purplevh purplevh 4:38 pm 24 Nov 21

I suppose what needs looking at is why a group is over represented in our prisons. Are they getting harsher sentences than other groups for the same crimes?
Are they comitting more crimes than other groups?

Very different solutions are required to deal with the possible causes of the over representation of any group.

jwinston jwinston 3:23 pm 24 Nov 21

Indigenous communities should be taking more responsibility. They should be making sure kids are attending school, making sure families are looking after their kids (feeding and clothing) and encouraging parents to get jobs.

William Newby William Newby 1:04 pm 24 Nov 21

Sounds all very PC, less people in jail, less indigenous people in custody etc.
Will be interested to see how she will mage all this.

I’m no legal expert but from what I do know, when you are standing before a judge you have screwed up fairly badly, and prison is certainly one option.

As it is you have to be a really bad egg to get sent to the clink; we read here every week of violent offenders that get off too lightly. Most would agree wasting $110,000/ year on each of these offenders is a gross sum of money. However, Australia’s prisons are well equipped holiday camps run by hedge funds that will leach every last $ they can from us.

What does she propose, more wet tea towels? more meetings and more cups of tea?

Is this a Green light on crime?

    J D J D 2:19 pm 24 Nov 21

    Justice McCallum said that while she needed to learn more about the situation in the ACT, she was particularly interested in addressing what most Australian judges would regard as a national tragedy – the over-representation of Indigenous people in jail.
    “Beyond that, I think I need to hold my fire and learn a bit more about the jurisdiction before I say what’s going to work.”
    “I’m interested in looking at any measures that improve incarceration rates and rehabilitation rates.”

    kenbehrens kenbehrens 8:40 pm 24 Nov 21

    I expect the views of the new judge are likely to align with the views of those who appointed her. That’s how these things usually work.

    I’m guessing that there are also high percentages of inmates (regardless of their ethnicity) that come from groups that are poorly educated, come from low income families, have drug or alcohol dependencies, no work etc.

    We shouldn’t be asking why a large percentages of inmates are indigenous, but why people as a collective, commit crimes. What leads people to commit crimes, because no one goes to jail unless they have committed a crime.

    .

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