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Judges, magistrates need more support to avoid judicial crisis, Chief Justice says

NSW Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Andrew Bell said judges and magistrates need further support, or the Australian court system will risk following the United Kingdom into a judicial crisis.

user iconNaomi Neilson 01 February 2024 Big Law
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In a speech to mark the opening of the NSW law term, Chief Justice Bell cautioned that “hard-working and under pressure” magistrates and judges have become “overstretched” in terms of both the number of members at the NSW Bar and the resources available to them.

He said the “goodwill” of these members is not “infinitely deep”, and society will not function without them should the judicial system fail.

“To understand how quickly a critical part of civil infrastructure may deteriorate unless properly valued and supported, one need only look to the current position in the United Kingdom,” Chief Justice Bell said.


Chief Justice Bell said in his speech that not only is there an “acknowledged crisis in judicial recruitment” within the UK, but there has been a “spate of early judicial retirements”, an increasing backlog of criminal cases, and a “lack of investment in the basis maintenance, let alone construction, of adequate court facilities”.

“We cannot slide down that slope,” Chief Justice Bell said.

New data released by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) revealed victims of crime are facing an average wait of 296 days for their case to be finalised, which represents a 98-day jump from the wait prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

BOCSAR attributed this to the increase in local court delays, which created a “backlog of matters awaiting a hearing”.

Despite an 8.5 million population and a $700 million economy, Chief Justice Bell said NSW has a judiciary of less than 300 to manage the increasing workloads throughout the state’s courts and tribunals.

In the Local Court, Chief Justice Bell said, many cases have “grown to more than 140 matters a day”, which has become unsustainable, “both in terms of the provision of justice for litigants and in terms of the working conditions of the magistracy”.

“The vital work undertaken by magistrates and the other members of the state’s judiciary is an essential service that must be properly and meaningfully valued as such, and properly resourced in accordance with its character as an essential service,” Chief Justice Bell said.

In light of this, Chief Justice Bell added the state government’s two-year freeze on judicial salaries will result in an overall 10 per cent reduction in the real wages at the judiciary level.

In the announcement, Premier Chris Minns said the freeze – which also impacts departmental secretaries, agency chief executive officers, executive officers holders and commissioners – would save taxpayers around $260 million over four years.

“[This] cannot go unremarked upon in this context,” Chief Justice Bell said.