The country’s most powerful corruption watchdog, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, has been ordered to shut down a public inquiry into high profile Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen on the grounds her alleged conduct did not amount to corruption.

The prosecutor is accused by the watchdog of attempting to pervert the course of justice for allegedly advising her son’s girlfriend to fake chest pains to avoid alcohol testing after a car crash.

The ICAC now plans to fight the judgment in the High Court.

Deborah Cornwall has our report.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It’s been a high stakes battle between a senior Crown prosecutor and the most powerful corruption watchdog in the land.

But today’s majority judgment by the New South Wales Court of Appeal was a clear signal, say legal observers, that the ICAC’s draconian powers can still be bought to heel if they overstep the mark or launch inquiries that amount to little more than a show trial.

Former Supreme Court judge and national chairman of Transparency International, Roger Gyles.

ROGER GYLES: Well I think it’s got to be seen as a blow to ICAC, it being such a public rebuff.

However, the chief justice dissented, and so, in a sense, it’s a work in progress. The end of the plot hasn’t yet been, been disclosed.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen launched her battle against the ICAC last month after the watchdog ordered her to appear at a public inquiry, along with her son Stephen Wiley and his girlfriend Sophia Tilley.

All three have been accused by the ICAC of attempting to pervert the course of justice, an allegation based on claims Ms Cunneen and her son had advised Sophia Tilley to fake chest pains to avoid blood alcohol testing after a car crash.

But two of three New South Wales Appeal Court judges today found the ICAC had seriously overreached. The allegations against the trio, they said, didn’t even amount to the ICAC’s own definition of corrupt conduct.

Roger Gyles.

ROGER GYLES: The case was argued on the footing that what was at stake was what was alleged against her, the advice that she is said to have given.

What they’ve really, the judgment really says, look, assuming that could be proven, it still would not be corrupt conduct within the meaning of the ICAC Act, even though it may be a crime.

So ICAC is not a general anti-crime body, it’s an anti-corruption body.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: One of the majority judges, John Basten, went even further, clearly alluding to claims by Ms Cunneen’s legal team that the ICAC was using its draconian powers to run what amounted to a show trial.


Deborah Cornwall reported this story on Friday, December 5, 2014 18:10:00