‘Fatigue, burnout and trauma’: New claims over DPP office

The state’s public sector union claims that staff within the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office work “in a culture of fear” amid “excessive hours, sleep deprivation and stress”, following calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the key legal agency.

Jun 09, 2023, updated Jun 09, 2023

Public Service Association (PSA) general secretary Natasha Brown, after SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo last week called for a parliamentary inquiry into the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), told InDaily the “culture of the ODPP potentially affects the quality of justice being delivered in South Australia”.

Pangallo last week aired allegations in parliament about a “toxic, chaotic and shambolic workplace culture” within the ODPP, which has more than 170 full-time equivalent staff.

The allegations come amid an independent review into recruitment and retention of staff at the legal agency, including a survey of the workforce about their experience working in the office.

Brown said “senior prosecutors” have told the PSA they have “grave concerns about the standard of work trial lawyers can produce, given the excessive hours, sleep deprivation, stress and the responsibility they shoulder”.

The PSA did not disclose to InDaily how many of its members work within the agency, but Brown said the union has “coverage of all workers in the ODPP, including lawyers and administrative staff, and we have a significant number of members in ODPP”.

“The ODPP’s toxic workplace culture has long been known with very little effort made to address the issues,” she said.

“Staff are having unrealistic expectations placed on them and are experiencing fatigue, burnout and trauma.

“Public sector lawyers feel undervalued and disrespected at work. They operate in a culture of fear leading to a reluctance to raise workplace issues because of the potential barriers to career progression that may follow.”

The PSA and ODPP have an “ongoing disagreement” over entitlement to overtime, Brown said.

She claimed the ODPP has argued that its lawyers are “not entitled to overtime and consequently have declined any requests for payment”.

PSA secretary Natasha Brown. Photo: Facebook

“Our members have reported having to travel on weekends, in their own time, to circuit court sessions in country locations,” she said.

“They frequently are required to conduct ‘back to back’ trials, requiring hours of unpaid overtime in order to be adequately prepared for cases – often involving traumatic circumstances.”

InDaily contacted the ODPP for comment and asked whether it had any response to the overtime claims raised by the PSA, and whether this issue was part of the ongoing independent review into staff retention.

In response, a spokesperson for the ODPP said: “The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions acknowledges the dedication and hard work of staff and our office’s engagement in this independent report is demonstration of our commitment to supporting staff who often work under challenging circumstances.

“As a result of advice, the Attorney-General’s Department does not consider its legal staff – including solicitors and prosecutors in ODPP – have an entitlement to overtime.”

The spokesperson said it was “not yet known” whether the independent review into staff retention will address these issues, but the consultant leading the report “has met with the PSA and is actively reviewing staff workload and its impact”.

The PSA highlighted the case of former ODPP prosecutor and union member Gary Phillips, who last year lodged a case with the SA Employment Tribunal claiming he was owed more than $47,000 in unpaid overtime from the ODPP.

The Advertiser reported in October that the Department for Treasury and Finance, the Attorney-General’s Department and the ODPP opposed Phillips’ claim for overtime, arguing there is “no contractual, industrial instrument or statutory entitlement… over the salary paid to the application pursuant an applicable Enterprise Agreement”.

The departments, according to the report, also claimed Phillips’ overtime requests “did not receive prior approval as was required”.

In response to questions from InDaily, Brown said the PSA “can’t be definitive” on the number of overtime requests the ODPP has denied but was aware that “staff have raised this issue many, many times”.

InDaily in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

“The ODPP’s responses have typically been heavy handed and we believe individuals who have raised issues have felt they have been targeted as a result,” she said.

ODPP lawyers are covered by the South Australian Public Sector Enterprise Agreement Salaried 2021, Brown said.

The Commissioner for Public Sector Employment’s most recent determination on overtime conditions allows agency heads and chief executives to “determine the payment of overtime to non-executive PS (Public Sector) Act employees whose salaries exceed the maximum salary at the classification level ASO6 ($101,109 a year)”.

Brown said while there is “reference to overtime in one of the enterprise agreement clauses, the ODPP has consistently maintained a strong position that lawyers are not entitled to overtime.

“This remains a point of difference between the PSA and the ODPP.”

The ODPP has been under fire over the last two years over its handling of two failed prosecutions arising from Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigations into former Renewal SA boss John Hanlon and executive Georgina Vailevski.

A first case spectacularly imploded in June 2021, when a prosecutor conceded in court the DPP’s office did not have sufficient evidence to prove their guilt.

Despite this, the DPP’s office later filed an ‘ex officio’ action in the District Court, seeking to pursue charges against Hanlon alone for abuse of public office and dishonestly dealing with documents relating to a 2017 work trip to Berlin.

But this case too fell over in spectacular fashion, with prosecutors dropping it on the day the trial was due to start.

Attorney-General Kyam Maher then said he would demand a briefing and a “please explain” from both the ICAC and the DPP.

Responding to questions about the ODPP’s workplace culture from Pangallo in parliament last week, the Attorney-General said staff within the agency performed “difficult, stressful and sometimes distressing work” involving the “worst elements of humanity in terms of what they have to see, the evidence they have to go through to prepare and present to court”.

“So, I do note it is the very nature of much of the work that the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions and their staff undertakes is difficult and distressing work,” he said last Thursday.

“I am aware that there are workforce difficulties not just in the DPP, but across many sectors, not just the public but the private sector.”­­­

SA Best MLC Pangallo also last week revealed that the Director of Public Prosecutions Martin Hinton KC had apologised in an email to “around 40” staff after receiving the results of the ODPP’s 2023 workplace survey.

Hinton’s email, dated May 23 and tabled in parliament, stated: “What I became aware of on Friday is just how much there is to analyse and understand, and I want to ensure that what happens next is considered and looks to the short, medium and long term.

“My first priority will be to address the stress and distress that many of the people in the ODPP are currently experiencing.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the PSA backed calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the ODPP. A PSA spokesperson later clarified: “While we welcomed a light being shone on the workplace culture at ODPP,  we stopped short of backing the call for a parliamentary enquiry (on the basis that there are a number of ways to deal with issues like this and a parliamentary enquiry may not be our members’ preference)”.

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InDaily.
All rights reserved.