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Legal Champion

News

Cite as: December 2011 85(12) LIJ, p.20

In his first interview since becoming Victoria's new Director of Public Prosecutions, John Champion SC spoke exclusively to the LIJ. He revealed himself to be a straight-shooter up for the challenge of the job.

By Carolyn Ford

The advice John Champion SC gave his daughter Ruth when she entered the legal profession is central to the character of Victoria’s new Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

It didn’t involve politics or personalities. It didn’t cover avenues of law or talk of partnership. It was much simpler than that.

“Be honest. Fight hard for both sides. Keep your integrity and at all costs, keep your reputation, because at the end of the day it’s probably all you’ve got to sell.”

The sage advice from father to daughter reflected a fundamentally solid yet low-key approach to life in the law.

Mr Champion assumed his new job as DPP mid-year with barely a ripple in legal circles, or otherwise.

Acting DPP since 28 June and confirmed in the position on 22 September, Mr Champion has quietly gotten on with the job at the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP).

The last half of 2011 has been in stark contrast to the previous 12 months when the nondescript Lonsdale Street office of the OPP erupted in a widely reported case of office politics involving the promotion of three OPP solicitors to the senior role of associate Crown prosecutor by former DPP Jeremy Rapke QC.

Mr Rapke denied any wrongdoing; however the goings-on in the bitterly divided OPP became regular fodder for the media and prompted a government inquiry into the functioning of the prosecution offices. Retired Supreme Court Judge Frank Vincent QC, who led the inquiry, concluded that Mr Rapke had not engaged in any “conscious wrongdoing”. However, the circumstances surrounding the promotions “gave rise to the perception of the presence of a conflict of interest”. (The full details of Mr Vincent’s report are unknown as the government refused to release it.)

That said, Mr Rapke resigned, his career at the OPP over. The first DPP not to go on to a position on the bench, Mr Rapke, the son of late County Court Judge Trevor Rapke, is now working as a barrister. He declined to comment for this article. The three promoted OPP solicitors continue to work at the OPP as associate Crown prosecutors, although that role has been redrawn under new legislation designed to avoid a repeat of the promotion brawl.

Under recent changes to the Public Prosecutions Act, the authority of the DPP is strengthened. The DPP has overall responsibility and accountability for the conduct and execution of public prosecutions, and reports to the Attorney-General. As well, a committee, comprising Mr Champion, Chief Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert SC and Solicitor for Public Prosecutions, Craig Hyland, has been created to consult on staff appointment nominations. Significantly, the role of associate Crown prosecutor will now fulfil a role akin to junior barristers at the criminal bar.

The episode involving Mr Rapke led directly to Mr Champion’s appointment. However, the new DPP, a man who is more soft-spoken than outspoken, steadfastly refuses to comment on it. In his view, it’s history and he has slammed the door on it.

“I don’t know what happened in the past and I am not reflecting on that,” Mr Champion said. “I only know what I read in the media. I try not to listen to rumour and innuendo. I have not been interested in pursuing further detail about whatever might have happened in the past. To me, it’s irrelevant.

“I don’t think there is a degree of restoration that needs to take place [at the OPP]. I don’t think there is a lack of confidence now. I don’t perceive that. From looking at relevant figures that relate to the work that is done here . . . in the last two to three years the office has been working very well. I don’t perceive any justifiable loss of confidence in the office within the community. That said, it is vital we make sure the public does have confidence in the work we do.”

London-born, John Ross Champion SC, 60, is extremely highly regarded across the legal profession. A barrister of 34 years experience, he has appeared in a wide range of criminal law matters – murder, terrorism, drug trafficking, white collar crime – mainly for the prosecution but also for the defence.

He has particular experience in complex circumstantial cases; in 2008 he successfully conducted the prosecution in a murder trial where the body was never found.

Mr Champion is a former chair of the Criminal Bar Association where he pioneered a mentoring scheme for junior barristers, spoke out for increasing legal aid funding and was a member of its Sexual Assault Advisory Committee and various other committees aimed at furthering the interests of the criminal justice system.

Barrister Michael O’Connell SC said: “His appointment was welcomed right across the criminal bar and rightly so. He has this inherent reasonableness about him. He exudes common sense and people warm to that . . . and his impressive trial experience commands respect. The OPP is in safe hands with John.”

Barrister Sarah Keating, who acted as Mr Champion’s junior in a committal hearing, said: “He is decent and kind, a very generous mentor to junior members of the Bar . . . and he has a positive, progressive outlook”.

LIV president-elect Michael Holcroft said: “John Champion’s appointment has been well received by the LIV and the Victorian Bar. He is well respected and we expect him to perform admirably in the role of Victoria’s DPP”.

Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark commented that since Mr Champion’s mid-year appointment as acting DPP, he had “achieved great progress in rebuilding stability and morale” within the state’s public prosecution services.

Asked what he had done to achieve this, Mr Champion said he had simply gotten on with the job.

“I have come in here and just been myself. Nothing particular, just come in and started the job. Got round to see people, talk to people. People seem to be coming to the door. They have greeted me warmly,” Mr Champion said.

“I think people will regard me as consistent, approachable, reasonably easy going, not idiosyncratic, open to discussion. If we are discussing issues around a table, I would like to think that everybody contributes. I don’t bite people’s heads off if they express a different view. I like to hear different views, come to a cohesive decision that tries to satisfy everybody. That’s the way I like to conduct business.”

The happily-married father of two (wife Terri works as an interpreter in the courts and at the OPP) has spent 34 years working as a self-employed barrister. The only person he has ever managed is himself, although there was a share in a chambers secretary.

“The only employee I ever had was an eighth-share in a floor secretary somewhere. Beyond that, I have been totally by myself.”

Within the parameters of the legal profession, Mr Champion’s new job is as different from his previous position at the Bar as it is possible to be.

For starters, there’s his new status: that of a Supreme Court judge. Then there’s the staff – 343 of them. And the meetings – up to 10 a day. From working on one case at a time, he must now be acquainted with hundreds in multiple courts. Beyond that, there’s legal policy, new legislation, government relationships, mentoring and much, much more. In modern parlance, the DPP is having to learn to multi-task.

“There are strings pulling in every direction,” Mr Champion said.

“There are lots of tensions here with the work that needs to be done, including a great deal of mentoring, making sure people’s cases are running properly.

“I normally have six to 10 meetings a day, jumping from one subject to another, sometimes they’re urgent, sometimes it’s somebody saying, ‘I have this judge monstering me, what do I do about it?’”

Mr Champion, who had to forgo a planned European vacation to take up the DPP job, admits to being utterly exhausted at the end of every day – “I find myself almost asleep by 8pm” – and that it will take him some time to get up to speed on the issues.

He also admits he will miss working as a barrister, but hopes to make court appearances. (His horsehair wig is tucked into a bookshelf.) Although, judging by the piles and piles of documents on his vast desk and the people constantly queuing up outside his office door, they might be brief and few and far between.

“Yes, that’s one thing I have thought about a lot,” said Mr Champion, who got hooked on criminal law doing his articles with a criminal law firm near London’s Old Bailey. “There is a charge you get starting a new trial in front of a jury, the awesome moment when a jury is empanelled or a jury comes back with a verdict. It’s hard to describe those moments.

“My aspiration is to try and maintain a profile in the court system. I think it’s important to show some leadership in the courts. Directors, I think, have an obligation to go to the Court of Appeal, to do some of the work there. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking there will be cases in the Supreme, County and perhaps Magistrates’ Court that the director can turn up and do.”

The courtroom is where publicity-shy Mr Champion will say what he has to say on sentencing and other issues. Again, he has no comment on Jeremy Rapke’s modus operandi which included lobbying for tougher sentences in the media.

“The place for a DPP to talk about issues like sentencing is transparently, in open court. That is where a director of an organisation like this should be making statements about sentencing. The other vehicle is through judicial conferences or legally placed areas where I might address judges.

“I won’t say I won’t . . . but my present feeling is that I won’t be going to the media and putting out public expressions of what I think sentencing philosophy ought to be.

“I don’t think personal views of mine are that relevant, frankly, on that issue or similar issues. I would be very happy if my profile was nothing. I just think this is a job where if you can sail under the radar and do your job and not be a visible presence in the media, then that would be preferable. I don’t like the idea of the personality cult.”

However he gets the message across, Mr Champion recognises the “opportunity” his new position presents in contributing to legal policy and issues such as court delays and mental health within the criminal justice system.

“A role like this gives me the opportunity to speak more directly with government, from a position of some authority, backed up by some very good support people here who are coming forward with ideas.

“The opportunity then arises for us to make submissions to government and I would hope be listened to. Whether it is accepted is out of our hands, but the opportunity to say something and hopefully be listened to is a good place to be.”

In his new job, which has a tenure of 10 years, Mr Champion is also very keen to focus on mentoring junior lawyers and to build relationships within the legal community.

“I am into trying to build relationships within the profession. Lots of things get done with personal relationships and friendships between people. If you have good relationships with the heads of courts and judges then it’s easy to do business.

“My personal aspiration is to make sure we produce very good lawyers in this organisation . . . it should be seen as a role model for advocacy, for how cases are presented in our criminal justice system.

“We are in the end, certainly the older ones like myself, the custodians of the profession and we want to make sure it continues to the highest standard.

“There are very good arrangements for mentoring here. The young ones are properly looked after and streamed through the organisation. There is good supervision. They get interesting cases, but they work hard. It’s a great grounding for the law.

“I am not a solicitor but this is my opportunity to say this is a very good place to work. They are beating the doors down to work at the OPP.”

John Champion on:

Suspended sentences

“The government is proposing a suite of added alternatives. I think we will see a lot of things made available to sentencing judges and magistrates. There may be no need for them.”

Mandatory sentences

“I know it is controversial. But for the moment, I will wait and see what the government’s position is on all that.”

Sexual assault cases

“This office filters sexual assault cases. That will not change. Is it time to move on and consider restorative justice in sexual assault cases? As a concept, if the community wants a discussion about it, we should have that discussion. Following such a debate, Parliament can make up its mind about it.”

Social media

“The law is going to find it very difficult to grapple with this. We just have to apply ourselves and try to resolve it.”

Live streaming of court cases

“I am cautious about it. I don’t see the public will be riveted by what will happen. It’s trying to find the right balance. Showing the “footy highlights” doesn’t necessarily give you the proper context of how the whole match went. It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

Affidavits (in relation to police and unsworn affidavits)

“We are only dealing with one case at this point. It is much too early to tell how widespread this practice might be, and to see what, if any, damage may have been caused. We are obviously thinking about it and will go forward when we are greeted with the next step. I don’t see changes [to the way statements are taken] ahead.”

Career at a glance:

John Ross Champion SC
September 2011 – present

Director of Public Prosecutions

1977 – 2011

Criminal barrister

2007 – 2010

Chair, Criminal Bar Association

2004 – 2010

Member, Criminal Bar Association Executive Committee

2003

Appointed Senior Counsel

1999 – 2005

In-house counsel, Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions

1977

Signed Victorian Bar Roll

1976

Admitted to legal practice.

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