Report into ‘toxic’ DPP office kept under wraps

The state’s Attorney-General will not publicly release a survey of staff in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, saying employees should be able to speak confidentially about the key legal agency accused of having a “toxic, chaotic and shambolic” workplace culture.

Jul 10, 2023, updated Aug 06, 2023
SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo, left, and Attorney-General Kyam Maher, right. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily. Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo, left, and Attorney-General Kyam Maher, right. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily. Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

The Attorney General’s Department earlier this year contracted independent consultant Rosslyn Cox to conduct a “workplace wellbeing survey” of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and produce a report with recommendations for reform.

The legal agency, which is budgeted for 178 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff this financial year, has been accused by the public sector union of having a “toxic” workplace culture that promotes “fatigue, burnout and trauma” among trial lawyers.

SA-Best MLC Frank Pangallo revealed last month that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Martin Hinton KC, had personally apologised to some staff members after reading the results of Cox’s survey.

Pangallo on June 1 called for a parliamentary inquiry into the ODPP and asked Attorney-General Kyam Maher in parliament whether he would make Cox’s review public.

He also asked Maher whether he was confident that the “toxic and unhappy culture is not contributing to delays and failures in prosecutions”.

Maher took the question on notice before later confirming that the government would not release Cox’s report.

“This government is committed to promoting wellbeing and safety in all workplaces, including in the ODPP,” Maher said.

“There are a number of challenges being faced in that office.

“And it is for that reason that the Attorney-General’s Department engaged an independent consultant, Ms Rosslyn Cox, to undertake a workplace wellbeing survey and provide recommendations.

“I consider it important that ODPP staff feel able to fully and frankly engage in this process.

“Additionally, any personal information provided by staff must be handled with the appropriate level of confidentiality. It is therefore not my intention to table Ms Cox’s report.”

In a separate statement to InDaily on Thursday, a spokesperson for Maher confirmed the Attorney-General also did not intend publish the report outside of parliament.

“The independent survey by Ms Rosslyn Cox was commissioned by the Chief Executive of the Department (Caroline Mealor) and has not been seen by the Attorney,” the spokesperson said.

The ODPP has previously said that Cox’s report will be “made available to all staff” within the agency when complete.

A spokesperson for the agency said on Thursday there is currently “no date set for Ms Cox to submit her final report”.

Cox’s report is the second review of staff wellbeing at the ODPP since 2017.

The 2017 report, not made public until Pangallo tabled it in parliament last month, included 28 recommendations to improve the culture of the ODPP.

Among the short-term recommendations were to “acknowledge employee workload as a significant stressor and focus on addressing the job demand” as well as “address the ODPP culture in which those who show signs of psychological stress are labelled (or perceived to be labelled) as weak”.

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InDaily asked the ODPP whether Cox’s report was looking into whether the recommendations of the 2017 report were implemented.

A spokesperson replied: It is anticipated that Ms Cox’s report will consider the effectiveness of the ODPP’s response to the recommendations made with the resources available to it, at least at a general level, and their continued relevance having regard to the functioning of the ODPP internally, and its function within the wider criminal justice system.

“Ms Cox is then expected to make further recommendations, taking into account the current position and resourcing of the ODPP.”

Pangallo said he would be “demanding” the Attorney-General release the latest wellbeing review.

“Defence lawyers are constantly frustrated by delays or unpreparedness of DPP staff. This adds to the cost of getting justice and is unacceptable,” he said.

“Judges and magistrates meanwhile have to keep a dignified silence. Cases have been falling over, and these need to be explained.”

The ODPP’s rates of conviction has dropped from 80.6 per cent in 2019/20 to 79.77 per cent in 2020/21 and 78.7 per cent in 2021/22, according to evidence provided by the Attorney-General in Hansard.

Maher’s evidence also states that 170 staff have left the ODPP since 2017.

Of those, 67 were “transferred elsewhere in the public sector”, 53 resigned, 26 had their contract expire and 11 received a targeted voluntary separation package.

A further five employees were appointed to judicial office and six retired.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General said the separation rate in the ODPP in 2021-22 was broadly in line with the rest of the public sector.

“Data from the Office for the Commissioner for the Public Sector would tend to suggest the separation rate within ODPP for 2021-22 (estimated at 16 per cent) is comparable to the broader public sector (15.79 per cent).

“As in many industries, there is currently a shortage of skilled legal staff across the State as well as the country which has contributed to the turnover of staff across the legal sector.”

Hinton, the DPP, warned in a foreword to his agency’s 2021/22 annual report that his office was “currently at the limit of our capacity”.

The statement, published last November, further warned that prosecution briefs are becoming more complex with the “resourcing of future extraordinary matters of great concern”.

“All the while we are acutely conscious of the need to protect the well-being of our people,” he wrote.

“Thus, recruitment of experienced staff with requisite skills is, and will remain, a major challenge, as will retention and an emphasis on training and development.”

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