The NSW Attorney-General’s office recently approved a pilot Online Court for civil cases in the Local Court General Division.
This service allows documents to be filed outside court hours and removes the need for parties to travel to the court repeatedly.
Gabrielle Upton (pictured), who was appointed as NSW’s first female attorney-general in April, told Lawyers Weekly that online processes were appropriate in cases that do not involve a “fundamental breach of a person's safety or liberty”.
“When you are talking about civil justice – where it's just people wanting to resolve things in the ordinary course of their business – there is a role for technology,” she said.
But in criminal proceedings the demeanour of the defendant is taken into account by the jury and judge, she continued.
People alleged to have “impacted somebody sometimes in very serious ways” are “fronting justice in a very personal way”, Ms Upton said.
“There is also a role in the criminal justice system [for technology] but it doesn't replace the trial,” she said.
However, the use of audio-visual link can create efficiencies and improve the experience of people in custody, she added.
“We've also got to have a system that treats people who are accused of crime in the most serious of crimes with humanity,” she said.
Shuttling people in custody back and forth to court, sometimes for long periods, costs police and correctional services time and is unnecessarily stressful for the defendant, she said.
In Lismore, for instance, people in custody have a six-hour return trip to court from Grafton Correctional Centre. “In that case I am talking about offenders – but the victims [also benefit] as well,” said Ms Upton.
Dealing with delays
The NSW courts have been experiencing delays over the past year, with the NSW District Criminal Court being hardest hit, according to Ms Upton.
According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, trial delay in the NSW District Criminal Court increased 34 per cent for defendants on bail between 2007 and 2014.
Ms Upton said this was a “function of lots of factors” including serious crime being targeted more by police and the increasing complexity of evidence due, in part, to technology.
She endorsed the NSW Law Reform Commission’s recommendation, made in December 2014, that appropriate early guilty pleas be encouraged.
Guilty pleas made late in proceedings waste time and resources as the court prepares for a trial that will not take place.
Ms Upton said that settling on a guilty plea early is “better for justice” as it allows for a “meeting of minds” between crown prosecutors and public defenders or the private bar around the case.
Other suggestions from stakeholders for reducing delays include having judges sit longer and creating broader jurisdiction in the local court, she said.
“We appointed two new district judges to child sexual assault matters which are comprising more and more of the criminal justice of district courts,” she continued. “Even with those there are still going to be delays.”
A key part of the solution to delays is to address the “low utilisation of court assets”, according to Ms Upton.
“Where justice needs to be has changed over time,” she said. “We've got a big hub of people and population growth in the west and they now have a Parramatta justice precinct which is serving their needs.”
She said that a “bricks and mortars approach to justice”, where every community has its own courthouse, does not fit with the changes in population trends and demands to the justice system over the last 150 years.
Not just the location of courthouses but the internal layout and design has shifted, according to Ms Upton.
“In the old days we used to build large buildings that were imposing and filled us with awe and frightened us,” she said.
Now, courthouses are aligned more with education and health services, and designed to best serve the people, she explained.
Ms Upton said the new $90 million justice precinct in Newcastle, scheduled to open next year, is a “flagship project” representing the progress made in creating state-of-the-art justice facilities.
“[Newcastle] will have district court hearings,” she said. “There will be 10 courts. There will be high levels of security. There will be witness facilities.”