Chief Magistrate Unwitting Victim Of Legal Changes
'Fingleton Sent To Jail' by Mark Oberhardt, Headlines The Courier-Mail, 5/6/2003

QUEENSLAND'S Chief Magistrate Di Fingleton has spent her first night behind bars after being convicted and jailed for a year on a charge of making a retaliatory threat against a fellow magistrate.

At 3.38pm yesterday, a Brisbane Supreme Court jury returned after four hours' deliberations in a retrial which for the first time tested Queensland's new laws to protect witnesses in judicial proceedings.

A minute later, the woman who overcame a dysfunctional upbringing by a violent, alcoholic father and a suicidal mother to become one of the state's most senior legal figures had been convicted on a charge which ironically she helped draft.

Fingleton, 56, husband John McGrath and other family members and supporters sat stunned as the verdict was read. Her brother Tony, with whom Fingleton wrote the movie Swimming Upstream, which recounted their troubled childhood, broke the silence with sobs.

"It's devastating," a distraught Mr Fingleton said later outside the court. "You can't imagine that this could happen. It's just awful."

Her defence counsel Russell Hanson, QC, had argued the offence was so low on the scale that it could be adequately covered by a bond, or if a jail sentence was required, it should be wholly suspended.

"She has already been severely punished because a conviction for this offence means that she can no longer practise as a magistrate or a solicitor," Mr Hanson told the court.

But Justice John Helman described the offence as an extremely serious one.

"I take into account what has been said about this offence, the circumstances in which it was committed and I take into account all that has been said on your behalf about your previous good character and good works," Justice Helman said. "I nonetheless consider that the gravity of the offence calls for a custodial sentence."

The case centred on Fingleton's intentions in sending Beenleigh magistrate Basil Gribbin a September 18, 2002 e-mail which gave him seven days to show cause why he should not be demoted to a coordinating magistrate.

The Crown alleged Fingleton had sent the e-mail as a retaliatory threat or a payback for Mr Gribbin supplying another magistrate, Anne Thacker, an affidavit to be used in Ms Thacker's appeal against a transfer from Brisbane to Townsville.

Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen alleged Fingleton was a woman who held a grudge for a long time and had been seething about the affidavit.

Fingleton's defence said it was not a payback but the e-mail was a result of an accumulation of problems she had with Mr Gribbin.

Mr Hanson questioned what "a workplace squabble between senior magistrates" was doing in the criminal courts.

Attorney-General Rod Welford, whose predecessor Matt Foley appointed Fingleton to the Bench in 1995, last night said he was unable to comment until it was known if Fingleton would appeal.

Fingleton's lawyers this morning are expected to seek Supreme Court bail for her release, pending an immediate appeal.

Last Wednesday a jury was unable to reach a verdict after 17 hours' deliberations in her case.

An immediate retrial was ordered and after five days of evidence the jury convicted her of retaliation against a witness. The jury was not required to enter a verdict on an alternative charge of perverting the course of justice.

Ms Cunneen said Fingleton had been convicted of a new charge and there was no precedent to help Justice Helman in his sentence. She said it had to be conceded the charge involved only a threat and any detriment would have been at the lower end of the scale. Ms Cunneen said, however Fingleton, as a senior judicial officer, was expected to uphold a greater standard.