It's not often that judges and magistrates are in the dock and sent to jail but that's what happened to former Queensland Chief Magistrate, Di Fingleton when
earlier this month the Queensland Court of Appeal upheld her conviction and her jail sentence for threatening another magistrate.
But should Ms Fingleton have ended up in the dock in the first place or is she the victim of an unfortunate workplace situation that escalated out of control?
It would appear the latter is closer to the truth when one reads the judgment of the Court of Appeal (pdf, 196kb). In short, if her colleagues
had acted to prevent a poisonous relationship between Ms. Fingleton and another magistrate, Basil Gribbin, from exploding, then Ms Fingleton wouldn't be behind bars.
Di Fingleton seems to have been an abrasive and perhaps vengeful character. But the magistrate whom she threatened, Basil Gribbin, is no shrinking violet.
The facts of the case were that Ms Fingleton threatened to remove Mr. Gribbin as a Co-coordinating Magistrate - a position that carries with it extra responsibility
but only $2,000 extra in salary - because the latter had sworn an affidavit in support of another magistrate's appeal against a decision by Ms Fingleton to transfer
her to Townsville.
But behind these facts is a complex history of magisterial politics. First, there is in a number of states in Australia, including Queensland, a tension between
those magistrates who have been appointed from what was, up until the last five to ten years, the traditional route of the public service, and those appointed
from the legal profession. Mr. Gribbin comes from the former culture, Ms Fingleton, the latter.
Second, unlike judges, magistrates have been industrially organised for some time. In Queensland there exists a Magistrates Association, whose job it is to
safeguard the working conditions of its members. Mr. Gribbin was Vice-President of the Association and Ms Fingleton was the subject of the Association's ire from
time to time. She was, in effect, the employer, given her right to transfer and promote or demote magistrates.
The cocktail of an employer-employee type relationship and inherent tensions because of the differing styles of Ms Fingleton, (who had leap-frogged other magistrates
to become the Chief), and Mr. Gribbin, was a lethal one. It explains how Ms Fingleton came to be in the sad position she is in today and yet when one considers it,
with a degree of good will and perhaps independent mediation, the accuser, Mr. Gribbin and the accused, Ms. Fingleton could have resolved the points at issue
This is not a far-fetched scenario. The festering sore that was poisoning the relationship between Mr. Gribbin and Ms. Fingleton appears to have come to
a head over two matters. Mr. Gribbin appears to have been genuinely outraged by the fact that his colleague, Ann Thacker, who had familial reasons for not wanting
to be moved to Townsville by Ms. Fingleton, was being forced to go. He supplied an affidavit in support of her appeal against the decision. Ms. Fingleton was upset by this action - she saw it as a slap in the face by Mr. Gribbin.
Why did Mr. Gribbin swear the affidavit in the first place? Wouldn't it have been better if he had sought the assistance of Magistrates Association to make
forceful representations on Ms Thacker's behalf, to Ms. Fingleton? Why didn't Ms. Fingleton, when she learnt of Mr. Gribbin's affidavit, ask him to meet with her so that they might discuss the matter in a constructive way?
The second matter that sent Ms. Fingleton and Mr. Gribbin into apoplectic spins was an item on the agenda of a meeting of Coordinating Magistrates that
was to be held on the 19th September 2002. The agenda item that upset Mr. Gribbin was one concerning the role of the Magistrates Association. Mr. Gribbin sent a
letter to those magistrates who were going to attend the meeting asking them to oppose any move to discuss the Association at the meeting. He did not send a copy
of this letter to the chair or deputy chair of the meeting - Ms. Fingleton and the Deputy Chief Magistrate.
Ms. Fingleton heard about the Gribbin letter and once again saw it as undermining of her authority. She wouldn't allow Mr. Gribbin to attend the meeting - when
he turned up the doors were locked!
But it was on the day before the meeting that an obviously steamed up Ms. Fingleton sent the email that landed her in jail. She had decided that enough
was enough between her and Mr. Gribbin and told him so. In her email to him she complained about his having supplied an affidavit in support of Ms. Thacker and
about his seeking to influence the agenda of the 19 September meeting. And then she went too far - Ms. Fingleton demanded formally to know within seven days,
why she shouldn't axe Mr. Gribbin from his coordinating magistrate position at the Brisbane suburban court of Beenleigh.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mr. Gribbin has been vindicated, and Ms. Fingleton is doing six months in protected custody.
The tragedy of this case is that if both Mr. Gribbin and Ms. Fingleton had been able to conciliate their concerns - and this might have required action on
the part of their colleagues to force them to the mediating table - then what was obviously an industrial dispute would not have ended up in the criminal law
system. Ms. Fingleton can deem herself unlucky indeed.