Mackay Court House.
Mackay Court House. Luke Mortimer

'Thankless job': Mackay prosecutors struggle under pressure

EXCLUSIVE: Prosecutors in Mackay are being stretched too thin in the face of overwhelming workloads, with claims it is leading to weaker sentences, court delays and defendants lingering behind bars.

A staffing shortfall at Queensland Police Mackay Police Prosecutions Corps is no secret within tight legal circles but two Mackay solicitors with almost three decades of experience between them have now spoken out on the matter.

Six legal professionals have backed their statements, but asked not to be named.

Queensland Police dismissed the concerns, saying the branch is adequately staffed and "provides an effective police prosecution service in the Mackay District”.

But the Mackay District Law Association said it would welcome more prosecutors to the Mackay region "to assist the existing hard-working prosecutors and ensure they are not under-resourced”.

Geoff Govey, of Taylors Solicitors in Mackay.
Geoff Govey, of Taylors Solicitors in Mackay. Luke Mortimer

Solicitor Geoff Govey, of Taylors Solicitors, has been practising in Mackay since 2003.

He said prosecution staffing shortfalls had been a talking point in Mackay's legal community for some years, but there had been little change.

He said the matter had become "more critical” recently.

"I think they've had staffing issues for some time. It's pretty well known, I think, in legal circles, court circles,” he said.

"I may not have picked up on it early on in the piece, but certainly I think it's been an issue for the last 10 years - at least 10 years.

"I think it was particularly an issue when we had the mining boom because accommodation (costs) went through the roof and I think that was also a problem, because (Mackay Prosecutions) couldn't attract staff to the region because rent was so high.”

He said that Mackay Police Prosecutions Corps had lost "at least three (prosecutors) recently”.

"Perhaps it's something that needs to be publicised, to generate some interest from the powers that be that direct funding. It's probably across the board in the public service in Queensland, truth be known,” he said.

"It certainly plays out for prosecutions, who you feel for. And there can be delays, it puts back cases, delays them. I've heard Magistrate (Damien) Dwyer excoriate prosecutors for that (delays) too. It's difficult for prosecutions to operate when they've got so much work and perhaps not as much resources as they need.”

Mr Govey believes "more funding, more prosecutors and more support staff” are needed to take pressure off stressed out prosecutors working a "thankless job”.

"I certainly feel for the Prosecutions Corps as a whole in Mackay, because I can see them struggling with the workload,” he added.

Aaron Sellentin, director and solicitor at Barron & Allen Lawyers Mackay.
Aaron Sellentin, of Barron & Allen Lawyers Mackay. Luke Mortimer

Barron & Allen Lawyers Mackay director and solicitor Aaron Sellentin, who's been practising since 2004, said he had "experienced prosecution delays in disclosing documents, and failure to comply with court directions regarding disclosure”.

"I am unsure if it was a result of a lack of staffing or resourcing,” he clarified.

"Unnecessary delays in criminal court proceedings can result in extra legal fees, people having to take more time off work to attend court and may result in people spending more time in jail than they should.

"It also results in wasting the court's time with unnecessary mentions.”

Mr Sellentin said the demand on Mackay Prosecutions was always high because they not only appeared in the two magistrates courts in Mackay, but "also service other regional courts including Sarina, Moranbah and Proserpine”.

"I support any additional funding of the Mackay Prosecutions office,” he said.

The Daily Mercury has first-hand notes of increasing court delays in recent months.

Some prosecutors have floundered under pressure while being questioned about overlooked orders, a lack of preparation and irrelevant case law.

Prosecutors are prohibited from speaking to the media about staffing issues.

However The Daily Mercury has been told Queensland Police Service Mackay Police Prosecutions Corps has been operating at about one-third of its recommended staffing numbers (or "operational capacity”).

It's understood about five prosecutors are employed on a full-time basis, dealing with thousands of charges each year.

Queensland Police would not answer questions about the number of prosecutors employed within the branch or how many vacancies there are.

"The Mackay Police Prosecutions Corps is adequately staffed, with an increase in prosecutor positions over the last 12 months to service courts in the Mackay Magistrates Court District,” a spokesman said.

The spokesman said there had been recent promotions and transfers of prosecutors from Mackay to other areas of the QPS, resulting in "new prosecutors being recruited to the office”.

"The Mackay Police Prosecutions Corps continues to provide an effective police prosecution service in the Mackay District.”

The office of Police Minister Mark Ryan referred us to the $2.37 billion funding allocation for 2017/18 provided to Queensland Police.

A spokeswoman said the minister had no say on where the money would ultimately be spent, and any staffing issues were a matter for Queensland Police Service.

In the 2016/17 financial year, 4644 adult defendants appeared before Mackay Magistrates Court on more than 8450 charges - 2.07 per cent of the state's total, according to the Magistrates Courts of Queensland annual report 2016-2017.