Yesterday’s victory by celebrity lawyer Michael Brereton over the Australian Crime Commission (the ACC) was a rare one. Experienced Victorian magistrate Phil Goldberg threw out a charge brought by the ACC (in connection with Operation Wickenby) against Brereton of refusing to answer questions because the ACC had failed to give Mr Brereton a choice of taking an Oath or Affirmation as it is required to do under the law.
Brereton’s case lifted the veil ever so slightly on one of the most shadowy and powerful bodies in the Australian criminal law. If you ever receive a summons to appear before the ACC you should be very scared indeed because you will be meeting with the closest thing our nation has to a star chamber.
The ACC was established in 2002 by the Howard government to fulfil the role undertaken by its equally secret predecessor, the National Crime Authority. It investigates everything from abuse in Indigenous communities, through to bikie gangs, tax fraud and illicit drugs.
And the ACC holds what it calls “examinations” in which it hauls individuals before an ACC lawyer to answer questions. The individual who is being questioned can be represented by a lawyer — but despite the fact that if you are being questioned by the ACC it’s over something more than whether you were doing 65kms in a 60 zone, the person conducting the examination doesn’t have to allow a lawyer the right to represent you.
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Then if you refuse to answer the questions being asked of you, you face the prospect of up to five years jail time or a hefty fine. And don’t expect that your lawyer will be able to do much to protect you when you are being examined because it is an offence to disrupt or hinder an examination!
Even though being summonsed to appear before the ACC would be a big deal for most people you are not allowed, and nor is your lawyer, to tell anyone that you have received a summons or that a examination has been held. Once again, a jail term looms if the word gets out that you paying the ACC a visit.
The secretiveness of the ACC has perhaps never been more problematic than in the case of its investigations into abuse in Aboriginal communities. The Howard government, as part of its intervention in the Northern Territory last year, agreed to the ACC going into communities to obtain evidence of s-xual abuse.
The ACC’s chief executive Alistair Milroy assured the media on 21 February this year that the ACC would “utilise coercive powers in a culturally sensitive manner in order to identify offenders and obtain specific intelligence relating to violence, child abuse and related offences of substances abuse and pornography.”
But how would anyone know whether Milroy’s organisation is living up to its promise to be sensitive to vulnerable Indigenous Australians when the ACC’s processes are conducted in secret?