A special investigator should be appointed to determine if gangland barrister-turned-police informer Nicola Gobbo and police officers broke any laws when the barrister acted as a human source for Victoria Police during Melbourne’s bloody underworld war, a royal commission says.
After 129 days of public and private hearings and the evidence of 82 witnesses, the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants has made 111 recommendations.
Commissioner Margaret McMurdo has found that the use of Ms Gobbo as a secret informer was a “systemic failure” and said the conduct by some officers could not have happened without “critical failures of leadership and governance in Victoria Police”.
The commissioner found the police force at the time was plagued with a pervasive and negative culture that was focused on getting results, with little regard to the consequences it would have on the rights of individuals and justice.
“It should have been clear to the Victoria Police officers involved that they needed to disclose Ms Gobbo’s status and conduct as a human source,” the commissioner said.
“It was for the court, not Victoria Police, to determine whether this information should be kept from the accused persons.”
Victoria Police has conceded that despite more than 100 people in the force knowing that Ms Gobbo was a human source between 2005 and 2009, no-one reported it or raised any concerns.
In her report, Ms McMurdo took aim at the conduct of police officers implicated in the scandal, which had shaken the very foundations of Victoria’s justice system.
“The systemic repercussions are still being felt,” she said.
“Court proceedings … have cost many millions of dollars. Public confidence in police has been undermined,” she said.
“It is critical that Victoria Police assures the Victorian government and the community that it has taken – and will continue to take – steps to prevent past mistakes being repeated,” she said.
Ms Gobbo’s conduct ‘inexcusable’
The report also revealed that the convictions or findings of guilt of 1011 people may have been tainted by the use of Ms Gobbo as a secret informer.
That includes cases where Ms Gobbo was acting as a client’s lawyer, and others where she may have been representing one of their co-accused.
The commissioner said that over time, the gangland barrister’s duplicity became “progressively more entrenched and destructive” until it came to an end in 2009.
“Ms Gobbo’s conduct as a human source … was extensive and sustained. It was also inexcusable,” Ms McMurdo said.
“Her breach of her obligations as a lawyer has undermined the administration of justice, compromised criminal convictions, damaged the standing of Victoria Police and the legal profession, and shaken public trust and confidence in Victoria’s criminal justice system,” she said.
Mandatory reporting obligation
The Andrews government is also being urged to make it compulsory for lawyers to speak up if they suspect other lawyers of misconduct.
Commissioner McMurdo said it was essential for lawyers to fully understand their obligations, including confidentiality.
“The introduction of such a mandatory reporting requirement would deter misconduct by lawyers, encourage their adherence to high ethical standards, strengthen public confidence in the legal profession, and bring it into line with other professions and fields where mandatory obligations apply,” the commissioner said.
Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the Andrews government would implement each of the royal commission’s recommendations.
Ms Hennessy said the commission’s work had exposed “truly appalling” conduct in the justice system that had “failed all Victorians”.
“There is a lot of work to do to make sure that we ensure that this never happens again,” Ms Hennessy said.
Ms Hennessy said the decision to act on every recommendation was a sign of the government’s commitment to rebuilding community confidence in the justice system.
The lawyer who was a ‘glittering prize’
The sweeping inquiry was established in late 2018 and was tasked with uncovering how many cases were tainted by the notorious gangland barrister’s informing.
Ms Gobbo was first registered as a secret police informer in 1995 but it was only years later, when she was representing some of Victoria’s most infamous gangsters, that police realised how valuable she could be in ending Melbourne’s bloody underworld war.
At the time, gangland investigators were feeling the pressure to bring the brutal conflict to a close as deaths continued to mount.
She was once described by Graham Ashton, at the time a deputy commissioner of Victoria Police, as a “glittering prize” who could potentially solve a bunch of … murders or prevent others”.
Mr Ashton would go on to become Victoria Police’s chief commissioner and later testified in the royal commission that he never tried to cover-up the use of Ms Gobbo.
“I was aware she was a human source before that, but certainly not aware of the extent of it,” Mr Ashton said.