Judge’s ICAC ruling in MP case could have ‘catastrophic effect’, court told

Eleven South Australian corruption prosecutions have become “paralysed” after a District Court judge found the state’s anti-corruption watchdog acted illegally in the case against MP Troy Bell, a court has heard.

Judge Liesl Chapman this afternoon refused to allow the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to refer her findings to the Full Court for review.

That decision could pave the way for Mr Bell’s defence team to ask the court to throw out all evidence obtained by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) during its probe into the politician.

DPP Martin Hinton QC told the court that if Mr Bell was successful and evidence obtained by ICAC was excluded from the trial, his office would have no case against the accused.

“Our whole case goes,” he said.

Earlier this month, Mr Bell — who is the independent Member for Mount Gambier — lost a bid to have his criminal prosecution put on hold indefinitely.

A judge sits in legal attire.
Judge Liesl Chapman found SA’s ICAC office exceeded its powers.(ABC News)

But Judge Chapman found the ICAC exceeded its powers by directly referring Mr Bell’s case to the DPP and continuing to investigate once charges had been laid in 2017.

“The court does not condone conduct which is contrary to the ICAC Act,” Judge Chapman said in her reasons.

“Nevertheless, a permanent stay of a criminal prosecution is an extraordinary step which will very rarely be justified.”

Mr Bell has pleaded not guilty to 20 counts of theft and six counts of dishonestly relating to the alleged misappropriation of $2 million of public funds before he was elected to State Parliament.

DPP warns of ‘catastrophic effect’

Earlier today, Mr Hinton told the court that all current prosecutions had been illegally referred to his office directly, bypassing police — describing Judge Chapman’s finding as having a “catastrophic effect”.

He said most corruption prosecutions stemming from investigations by the ICAC were still in the Magistrates Court.

“One matter with four accused has been committed to [the District Court], and one is awaiting trial in December,” he said.

Some corruption prosecutions on foot relate to former Renewal SA boss John Hanlon and executive Georgina Vasilevski, former magistrate Bob Harrap and police officers Sean Hobbs and Andrew Jaunay.

“We are now in a position where we have to consider the ramifications of Your Honour’s judgement and what remedies need to be taken so we’re on the right side of the law,” Mr Hinton said.

Bruce Lander sits at a desk with a microphone.
Bruce Lander QC was appointed SA’s first anti-corruption commissioner in 2013.(ABC News)

He said it was not as easy as just handing all their files to police because officers needed to be available to “act and act as quickly as possible”.

But Ms Shaw told the court that if Judge Chapman’s findings go to the Full Court for review, it would be “oppressive” to her client and result in the trial becoming “fragmented”.

Mr Hinton told the court last week that the judgement was “profound” and would have greater implications for prosecutions stemming from ICAC investigations.

He said while the DPP successfully fought off the permanent stay, his office had been rendered “paralysed” by the judgement as it went through an appeals process.

“We will now have to tread warily around what we do with the individual former investigators for ICAC,” he told the court last week.

“There is no way around the complex situation we are in. No-one foresaw this but we are in it, so there will be delay.

“It travels well beyond this matter. In fact, it affects virtually all matters that are currently in my office because they have all been referenced directly.”

The DPP has 48 hours to appeal Judge Chapman’s refusal to refer the matter to the Full Court for review.

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