Public interest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 1998, 12:00am

The resignation of Judge Duncan Kilgour after being rebuked for alleged misconduct by the Chief Justice is unfortunate for the judge and his wife and for the judiciary. Nevertheless, the resignation appears to have been a personal decision, and not one over which the public has a right to exercise control.

However, the events leading up to that decision are not private or personal matters. Unquestionable, they belong in the public domain. The judge is alleged to have abused his position at a police roadblock, by showing his warrant card and failing to co-operate with the police. The Chief Justice cautioned him not to give any perception that he was doing anything to exert improper influence.

Mr Kilgour's conduct was such that the judiciary felt justified in launching an internal inquiry into his actions, even though it was initially the judge, himself, who began the process by making a formal complaint against the police. That could hardly have been the outcome which Mr Kilgour had expected when he lodged the complaint, and suggests that he did not see his actions in the same light as his accusers did. It may be that Mr Kilgour had been rebuked for alleged arrogance rather than any specific wrongdoing, but his conclusion that the rebuke might cost him a promotion suggests he felt it was a strong one.

That was his personal decision. However, the inquiry and its results should serve as a warning to the rest of the judiciary. Their work puts them in a position of moral leadership. It requires them to set an example. Those who sit in judgment over others must know how to behave in public. They must also allow their public behaviour to be judged by others.

Not only must the judiciary, itself, be aware of an inquiry conducted in its midst. The public must also be given the facts. Otherwise it will be assumed that judges think they are in a special category, and that they expect their own actions to be immune to the scrutiny they impose on others. Open inquiries into cases of alleged judicial misconduct are as much part of open justice as open hearings in court into the alleged misconduct of others.

In another recent misconduct inquiry, a district court judge accused two colleagues of trying to influence his handling of a case. The openness of that process was a better precedent than the softly-softly proceedings in the case of Mr Kilgour.