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NT justice close to ‘overloading’ as bush courts ‘grind to a halt’

With bush courts suspended as a result of coronavirus travel restrictions to remote communities, NT legal groups believe justice for Indigenous people in remote areas is “grinding to a halt”.

user iconTony Zhang 29 April 2020 Big Law
Northern Territory
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Marty Aust, president of the Northern Territory Criminal Lawyers Association, said while some in-custody matters are continuing, most other cases have been adjourned.

“The reality is that things are sort of coming to a grinding halt where these matters are being adjourned, because you just cannot facilitate ongoing contact in the absence of interpreters and access to the clients physically,” Mr Aust said.

But with bush courts suspended as a result of coronavirus travel restrictions to remote communities, Mr Aust believes justice for Indigenous people in remote areas is “grinding to a halt”.

 
 

In the Northern Territory, circuit courts rotate through more than 30 remote Aboriginal communities each year, but changes to all court systems in the NT have been made as a result of the coronavirus threat.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) principal legal officer David Woodroffe has told the ABC that the system was designed to ensure every Territorian had fair access to justice regardless of their postcode.

“Bush courts are the most important legal work that’s done in the nation,” he said.

“It really is that connection between Aboriginal communities and the mainstream legal system.”

In the NT, there are now three weeks since a coronavirus case was recorded in the state, but the NT government has no firm plans in place to relax the Territory's coronavirus restrictions and legal practitioners are concerned the cancellations will continue.

In the interim, lawyers fear already overloaded bush court hearings will quickly become unmanageable as unheard cases build up.

NT legal groups are calling for additional funding to be allocated to allow for longer remote sittings once the remote circuit courts resume.

Bush courts give remote residents access to criminal proceedings and custodial matters from their home communities, as opposed to travelling to major hubs such as Darwin, Alice Springs or Tennant Creek.

The system also allows civil, domestic violence and care and protection of children cases to be dealt with locally.

Lawyers Weekly understands that for most bush court hearings, lawyers and judges have to go on the road often driving or travelling in light planes for court sittings in remote communities, where they often deal with large caseloads in limited time.

Mr Woodroffe said the changes present an opportunity to invest in remote justice.

“The big lesson is that there hasn’t been enough investment in our bush courts, and it’s time that we do need to think about the future,” he said.

NT Attorney-General Natasha Fyles had declined to say whether the government would consider requests for additional funding.