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NSW reforms set to clear court backlog

NSW reforms set to clear court backlog

A SYSTEM designed to reduce guilty pleas and no-bills on the eve of trials will be introduced in a New South Wales Government effort to tackle a backlog of cases as well as cut the cost of…

A SYSTEM designed to reduce guilty pleas and no-bills on the eve of trials will be introduced in a New South Wales Government effort to tackle a backlog of cases as well as cut the cost of criminal trials.

The reforms, outlined last week in the NSW Supreme Court, will see changes to the management and processing of indictable cases in the Local Court. The reforms are aimed at reducing no-bills and late pleas of guilty, thereby saving court and judicial resources.

In a speech at the Supreme Court last week, assistant director-general of the Attorney-General’s Department, John Feneley, said that despite fewer than 600 cases ultimately proceeding to trial, 2,200 are committed for trial per year in NSW. “Of the remainder, approximately 700 result in a plea of guilty, approximately 450 are ‘no-billed’, and the balance marked ‘not reached’, adjourned or aborted,” he said.

There is a “vast waste” of resources at the most expensive end of the process, said Feneley, as well as additional uncertainty and stress for victims, witnesses and often the accused.

As well, the high number of late pleas means the court is forced to over list in order to ensure there are always cases for judges to hear each day, further exacerbating the resource crisis for those agencies attempting to prepare cases for trial, Feneley said. Pre-trial judicial case management initiatives are not a realistic option with so many cases on the list, he said.

The proposed changes, to take effect from July 2005, will go a long way to cutting guilty pleas and no-bills on the eve of the trial. It is anticipated they will lead to a 50 per cent reduction in late pleas in the superior courts, said Feneley.

“The focus of the reforms is to create an environment prior to committal in the Local Court that provides a real opportunity for the parties to consider the evidence and charges laid in an informed and fair fashion,” he said.

“It is important to note that the reforms are not intended to put pressure on an accused to plead guilty if the accused does not wish to do so. In fact, it is anticipated that the same number of matters that currently proceed to trial will continue to do so.”

The reforms will introduce a new process from the charge through to the committal stage in the Local Court. It is also expected there will be legislative amendment to the Criminal Procedure Act and the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act. As well, there will be an early prosecution brief to allow formal negotiations and discussions between the parties.

Under the reforms, the magistrate will explain to the accused the benefit of a plea of guilty at an early stage and the system for discounts that apply, Feneley told his audience. Another key reform will be the setting down of a date for a compulsory conference, which will be a formal setting for negotiations between the parties to discuss charges. “It is also an opportunity for the defence to make offers as to a possible plea outcome or variation as to facts,” said Feneley.

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