It has taken some seven years but the Tasmanian DPP’s complaint against former Sue Neill-Fraser lawyer Barbara Etter has been dismissed, while other complaints are upheld.
As reported by Amber Wilson, The Hobart Mercury, March 2, 2022:
FORMER Integrity Commission boss and ex-barrister Barbara Etter has cleared her name over a grievance arising from Sue Neill-Fraser’s high-profile murder trial – but could still face serious sanctions after being found guilty of professional misconduct.
On Tuesday (March 1, 2022), Supreme Court of Tasmania acting judge Brian Martin dismissed a complaint brought against Ms Etter – who previously acted for Neill-Fraser – by now-Director of Public Prosecutions Daryl Coates SC.
In his judgment, Acting Justice Martin outlined comments Ms Etter made on television program 60 Minutes in August 2014, and also on her personal blog, about luminol evidence in the Neill-Fraser trial.
During the 60 Minutes episode, Ms Etter claimed the jury in Neill-Fraser’s trial was shown a “highly prejudicial photograph” of a dingy with a luminol reaction and was wrongly told victim Bob Chappell’s blood was in the vessel.
Mr Coates, in a letter to the Legal Profession Board of Tasmania cited in Acting Justice Martin’s judgment, said “at no point” was the jury told that Mr Chappell’s blood had been found in the dinghy, claiming Ms Etter had attempted to “garner public sympathy by spreading a falsehood”.
Mr Coates also complained Ms Etter alleged two police officers fabricated or interfered with a video recorded interview between the police and Neill-Fraser.
But Acting Justice Martin dismissed Mr Coates’ request that Ms Etter be found guilty of professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct.
The judge, noting unedited material had indeed been provided to Neill-Fraser’s legal team, said Ms Etter’s actions over the video claims could be regarded “as a fishing expedition” in attempting a coroner to seek further information – and did not amount to professional misconduct.
Regarding the luminol complaint, Acting Justice Martin said during the trial, the Crown had opened its case by informing the jury that luminol in the dinghy indicated the presence of blood, and it was not inappropriate for Ms Etter to describe the photo as “highly prejudicial”.
However, a second complaint against Ms Etter was upheld, with Acting Justice Martin finding her guilty of professional misconduct by bringing vexatious complaints against four lawyers – Mr Coates and former DPP Tim Ellis SC relating to the Neill-Fraser trial, and Kate Cuthbertson and Emily Warner regarding a coronial inquest.
“It is clear from Ms Etter’s evidence that she endeavoured to use the complaint process as a means of fighting back against the board and legal practitioners involved with the board,” he said.
Ms Etter was also found guilty of a second instance of professional misconduct by “improperly attempting to influence the coroner’s decision” over the 2007 death of Tasmanian woman Rita Greer.
However, Acting Justice Martin found the remainder of the Greer complaint (six other issues) had not been made out.
“Ms Etter undoubtedly annoyed a number of persons with whom she dealt, and her voluminous correspondence was probably not met with much enthusiasm,” the judge said.
“However, being a difficult or annoying practitioner generally … does not translate into misconduct.”
As a result of the findings, Ms Etter – who quit the legal profession in 2018 after her legal practising certificate was temporarily suspended – could be subject to sanctions such as being struck off as a lawyer.
(Acting Justice Martin will announce his decision on sanctions on March 10, 2022.)
For more about the Legal Profession Board of Tasmania, see
“A law unto themselves, absent model principles” by Bill Rowlings, CEO, Civil Liberties Australia