The Victorian Coroner could be removed from office if a new investigation finds she took publicly owned alcohol for herself.
A preliminary investigation into Victorian Coroner Sara Hinchey has dismissed 87 allegations made against her, but decided five complaints required further action.
An investigating panel will now be established to consider an allegation concerning the alleged removal for personal use of alcohol purchased using Coroners Court funds.
The Judicial Commission of Victoria, which conducted the preliminary investigation, said the allegation of taking alcohol for personal use could, if substantiated, amount to proven misbehaviour such as to warrant removal from office.
The commission, which has limited powers of investigation, “was unable to make findings about this allegation”, it said in a statement.
An investigating panel will now consider this allegation further. Neither the commission nor the investigating panel has the power to remove a judicial officer from office, however. A special majority of both houses of parliament must agree before a judicial officer can be removed.
Four other allegations that formed part of the initial investigation have been referred to Chief Judge of the County Court of Victoria, Justice Peter Kidd, “for counselling”. Those matters are:
- An allegation Hinchey removed her own skirt and persuaded a former senior employee to try on the skirt during a meeting;
- An allegation that at a legal services meeting attended by various employees of different levels, Hinchey reprimanded “despicable behaviour” by some of those present, a move that could have been understood as threatening to harm the professional reputations of those people and to take their conduct into account during any future appearances before her;
- Complaints she frequently swore during meetings with senior staff; and
- An allegation that on one occasion, she encouraged staff to do suggestive dance moves on camera.
These matters have been referred “as the commission was satisfied they warranted further consideration because they may affect or have affected the performance of Judge Hinchey’s functions or may have infringed the standards of conduct generally expected of judicial officers and were not dismissed as unsubstantiated,” said the Judicial Commission.
The investigating panel, convened to investigate the alcohol allegation, has a broad range of powers and can compel witnesses to attend and produce documents. It comprises two current or former judicial officers from an Australian jurisdiction and one member of the community appointed on the recommendation of the Victorian Attorney-General.
The panel will determine what, if any, action should be taken. If it forms an opinion that facts exist that could warrant the removal of the officer concerned, it may prepare a report for the Governor of Victoria. It may also dismiss the matter or refer it to the head of jurisdiction.
The commission also explained the process that led to the dismissal of 87 allegations:
“The commission is always mindful of the important role it plays in maintaining public confidence in the judiciary. The commission applied the criteria in the act to each of the allegations, as well as considering the cumulative effect of all allegations.
“The commission reached its conclusions after carefully considering the 92 allegations made against Judge Hinchey and the 21 affidavits of responding material, exhibited documents, and submissions provided on behalf of Judge Hinchey.
“Despite the large number of allegations in the complaint, many of them lacked detail or were otherwise incapable of meeting the criteria for referral for further action under the act. Others were unsubstantiated after reviewing the responsive material from Judge Hinchey.”