‘Toxic’ OPP in turmoil, with solicitor exodus after sex offence unit axed

‘Toxic’ OPP in turmoil, with solicitor exodus after sex offence unit axed

04/30/2022

Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions has been plagued by low morale, inadequate funding and an exodus of experienced staff.

Talking points

  • Retiring OPP solicitor Anna Loughnan slammed the organisation, saying that “solicitors are leaving in absolutely unprecedented numbers”.
  • Several criminal trials have been adjourned because the OPP has been unable to find prosecutors, former and current staff say.
  • The OPP says the pandemic has placed additional strain on staff, but denies there are morale problems.

Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions has been plagued by low morale, inadequate funding and an exodus of experienced staff following its contentious decision to disband its Specialist Sex Offences Unit.

Several criminal trials have recently been adjourned because the OPP was unable to find prosecutors, former and current staff told The Sunday Age. This was expected to exacerbate the backlog of cases clogging the state’s court system, they said.

Criminal trials have been held up because the OPP has been unable to find prosecutors, according to former and current staff.Credit:Wayne Taylor

When Anna Loughnan, a former managing solicitor for the Specialist Sex Offences Unit (SSOU), retired last month after 27 years, she fired a broadside at the OPP executive.

“The once great collegiate culture of the OPP is now so toxic that solicitors are leaving in absolutely unprecedented numbers,” Loughnan said in an email to colleagues and management on March 11.

“Please don’t delude yourselves it is the great resignation and maybe instead be honest about listening to the ‘anonymous’ feedback from the surveys.”

Loughnan is not the only experienced solicitor to leave the OPP after the SSOU was restructured last month. Kerry Maikousis moved to the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office and Bianca Moleta accepted a role with Victoria Police.

An OPP source not authorised to speak with the media said the problem of staff retention was a significant issue among other trial divisions across the organisation.

“Some solicitors are going to private practice where they can make a lot more money without the ridiculous caseloads. And we have this extraordinary situation where trials are being disrupted because the OPP can’t find prosecutors, or have to appoint inexperienced ones,” the OPP solicitor said.

The recent appointment of several senior barristers to judicial posts has compounded the shortage of experienced criminal barristers available to work as prosecutors, according to the OPP source.

A prominent Queen’s Counsel, who asked not to be identified as they receive prosecution work from the OPP, said attempts by the judiciary to expedite trials had placed further pressure on the OPP.

“After the almost two years in lockdown and a huge backlog of cases, they [the OPP] are now facing an almost perfect storm,” the barrister said.

An OPP spokeswoman said the pandemic had placed additional strain on staff, but denied there was any problem with morale.

“The OPP has a collegiate and dedicated workforce, who are committed to serving the Victorian community. In the most recent staff survey, over 80 per cent of staff said they were proud to work at the OPP,” the spokeswoman said.

She said the OPP had responded to mounting workplace pressure by increasing staff by 11 per cent since June 2020. It has also established a specialist trial prosecutions unit to help prioritise cases and introduced workload caps to manage stress on lawyers.

“Whilst it is clear that some former and current staff are aggrieved by the embedding of the SSOU lawyers across our practice, we do not consider that there is a culture problem in the way that has been described,” the spokeswoman said.

Under the changes to the SSOU introduced last month, the 13 solicitors from the unit have been dispersed into a general pool, which the OPP insists will continue to competently handle sexual offence trials.

The overhaul followed the awarding of $435,000 in damages to former SSOU solicitor Zagi Kozarov, which was recently upheld in the High Court.

Kozarov, who worked in the unit for more than two years, was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and a major depressive disorder after she was repeatedly exposed to sexual offence cases and child exploitation material.

A recent report signed by 12 members of the former SSOU raises serious concerns about the wellbeing and morale of staff across the OPP.

“Workload pressure is not a new phenomenon, indeed high workloads were flagged as an issue in the Occupational Health and Safety Committee meeting minutes as early as 2018, well before the pandemic, but in recent times it has become relentless and unsustainable,” the November report said.

“Staff levels across our office are depleted and are not being replaced promptly, and this has put unprecedented strain on solicitors who are regularly absorbing reallocated files on top of increasing workloads,” the report warned.

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