WJN Takeover: Final Day Hearing

On the 24th of July 2020, the 8th and final hearing day in the case of R v Kathlin Armstrong was heard. The matter took place in the Local Court and was presided over by her Honour, Magistrate Carolyn Huntsman. The defence team for Ms Armstrong comprised Peter O’Brien and Elliot Rowe. 

The case took place under covid circumstances, with Ms Armstrong only allowed two support people to sit with her during the proceedings. A number of people had wanted to attend but were not able to, including the CEO for Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy who is recovering from COVID in Brisbane. Others sent her messages of support.

The day involved a major exposure of bad faith by the WIPAN Board. They had misled police and provided an edited email chain to support their complaint. Police said they relied “very heavily” upon President Natasha Thompson’s material for their decision to prosecute. The Board has refused to talk with Kat’s support people since 2017 despite continuous attempts to resolve the matter amicably. They control the organisation. Their CEO Gloria Larman has been present every day of the hearing, sitting and speaking with Detective Thompson who is running the case. 

The hearing commenced at 9:45 am and began with the defence counsel adducing witness testimony from two key individuals. The first witness, Ms Vickie Roach was the Aboriginal activist who took the right to vote for prisoners to the High Court of Australia and won. She was a former colleague of Ms Armstrong and worked on the Board of WIPAN during the period of 2011 – 2012. Ms Roach offered important testimony into the role and responsibilities of Ms Armstrong within the organisation and the understanding of remuneration between Ms Armstrong and the Board of WIPAN. Ms Roach gave testimony about the existence of a common understanding between Ms Armstrong and WIPAN that, given the company’s limited finances during the period, Ms Armstrong would not be paid at the time and would instead be reimbursed at a later date. 

The prosecutor then proceeded to cross-examine her. She asked Ms Roach about the nature of her relationship with Ms Armstrong, and queried her on the lack of physical evidence to support her contention that there was a plan to reimburse Ms Armstrong once the company was in a stronger financial position. Ms Roach responded that she was not surprised that there was no record of such a plan, as it was not in the nature of meetings to record such things as the knowledge of the debt was seen as part of the history of the organisation and the assistance had been done in good faith. 

Ms Roach also provided testimony that outlined the nature of the relationship between Justice Action and WIPAN. She said that Ms Armstrong and the Board had made it clear that WIPAN had been given financial support from Justice Action and Breakout, and that it was intended that both groups be reimbursed at a later date for their assistance. 

The second witness to give evidence was Ms Psillakis. Ms Psillakis had been a mentee at WIPAN who became a Board Member in August 2016. She gave evidence that there were discussions of repaying Ms Armstrong for her work in the organisation during Board meetings that took place while she was present during the years of 2016-2017. The defence team drew Ms Psillakis’ attention to an email written in August 2016 which expressed an intention to repay Ms Armstrong for her work. Ms Psillakis told the court that she had emailed that correspondence to the defence counsel. 

The defence raised the fact that this email evidence was missing from the evidence that was given to Police, when the Board of WIPAN decided to take the matter to police. This is a critical issue given the police witness Detective Thompson said he ‘relied very heavily’ on the President of WIPAN Natasha Thompson, when conducting the investigation into Ms Armstrong. From this evidence the Board of WIPAN appeared to act dishonestly when they gave information to police, as their email evidence was missing critical parts of the email chain. They had edited the complete email chain. Evidence to police omitted statements in the email chain from Ms Psillakis to all the others, who expressed an intention of the Board to repay Ms Armstrong for her past work for the organisation. 

Ms Psillakis informed the court that she and other Board members proposed the reimbursement of Ms Armstrong for her work as CEO at that time. In her cross-examination, the prosecution suggested that Ms Armstrong refused to be reimbursed at this time, and that this indicated her intention to do the work voluntarily. The prosecutor asked Ms Psillakis if the Board had the best interests of Ms Armstrong at heart, but the judge intervened and the question was removed. 

The defence counsel for Ms Armstrong had also planned to call a third witness to give evidence on behalf of Ms Armstrong. The witness was unable to attend the hearing due to illness. 

The court had a brief adjournment in order to return after lunch to hear the final submissions of both parties. Prior to the adjournment, the prosecutor informed the court that their closing remarks were solely in the form of written submissions, which she promptly handed to the Magistrate and the defence team to examine. An adjournment of 40 minutes was granted.

The matter resumed at 2pm for parties to give their final submissions. Mr Peter O’Brien spoke on behalf of Ms Armstrong and outlined his final submissions to the Court. He reiterated the two key parts of the defence. The first, that an unspoken arrangement existed between Ms Armstrong and the Board of WIPAN that the organisation would repay her for her extensive financial and non-financial contributions to the organisation throughout her 10 years of involvement. Thus, Ms Armstrong had acted with a genuine and reasonably held belief that she was authorised to make financial transactions between the organisation and herself and was doing so to repay the debt that WIPAN owed her. 

Secondly, the trust and relationship between Ms Armstrong and the Board of WIPAN began to break down in October 2015, arising out of a disagreement with the nature of participation and involvement of the organisation and people with lived experiences in the criminal justice system. Despite this disagreement, the other co-founder of the organisation, Ms Petrov, also maintained during her evidence that the Board always had the view that Ms Armstrong would be paid for her extensive contribution over the years. This supported the obligation that WIPAN had to Ms Armstrong.

Following the submissions of both parties Magistrate Huntsman apologised to Ms Armstrong for the delay, but said that her decision would be handed down on September 3, but later postponed again to Wednesday 21st October 2020.

Index page: Women’s Justice Network Takeover

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