THERE SHOULD be greater self-governance by the heads of the various courts in Victoria, and more resources for delivering best practice, according to a joint statement issued by Victoria’s courts.
The Court Strategic Directions Statement, the result of a two-year review, makes recommendations looking at structural, procedural and administrative reform of the courts and Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
Outlining new developments and emerging challenges that the courts now face, the 155-page document makes 27 recommendations to the Government.
According to Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) president Chris Dale, the statement is a “blueprint for the future direction of the courts for years to come”.
This year will go down as “one of the great years of vision for the legal profession” in Victoria, Dale said.
A justice statement by the Department of Justice and the federal Attorney-General earlier this year, and now the court strategy plan by the courts and tribunals, “shows that everyone is looking into the future and saying this is what we want for the legal profession in Victoria”, Dale said.
The strategic directions statement is the first collective articulation by the courts and VCAT of a system-wide approach to long-term strategic planning, the foreword in the statement’s heads of jurisdiction states.
The question of resources needs to be addressed “as a matter of top priority”, Victorian courts recommend. Before any laws are passed by the Parliament adding to jurisdiction, or creating new rights or remedies, “it should be provided with a report on the likely implications for the resourcing of the courts and VCAT”, reads one recommendation.
The allocation of adequate resources is a dominant theme in the statement, which also suggests that the first task before implementing the statement itself should be “an assessment of the financial and human resources required to enable implementation within a reasonable time and the timely provision of those resources”.
It also stated that the courts’ and legal profession’s facilities should be reviewed and maintained at an appropriate level, and teleconferencing facilities should be made available to all court rooms.
As well, the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments should provide an adequate level of legal aid funding to ensure that people have adequate legal representation, the courts suggested.
Speaking for all the heads of jurisdiction, Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said the courts want to ensure they have the capacity to serve the community, as well as “meet demands placed on a modern court system”. “But ultimately we cannot do this without adequate resources and support from the Executive and the Parliament,” she said.
“While there are, and will continue to be, strong competing demands on government funding, it is the considered view of the courts and VCAT that the critical role and unique requirement of the courts have not been sufficiently taken into account.”
Justice Warren said the courts had managed to perform at a high level as well as undertake innovation in a number of areas, despite confusing governance arrangements and inadequate resourcing. But this had only been made possible, she said, by the commitment and effort of those involved and “cannot be sustained indefinitely”.
A crucial issue, according to Justice Warren, is to move the control of the courts from the bureaucracy to the heads of the courts themselves. This would strengthen judicial independence and ensure responsible management. “The statement highlights the special position of the courts in our society, and the critical role we play in administering the rule of law,” she said.
“We need arrangements which maximise the independence and operational effectiveness of the courts,” Justice Warren said.
It is thought, LIV president Chris Dale said in an interview with Lawyers Weekly, “that independence is something that may be better assured” if there is greater self-governance by the heads of the various courts. “But it is a discussion we need to have within the sophisticated echelons of the legal profession,” he said.
But Dale countered the proposal that this would become a spat between the profession, courts and government. “This is a healthy discussion and I don’t see it as some sort of debate that has within it any tensions.”
Newly-elected Victorian Bar chairman Ross Ray QC applauded the statement, arguing it is a “comprehensive, well-reasoned report” that assesses the current situation of the courts with “unflinching realism”.
Ray said the statement shows that the courts have continued to function well despite the limits on the resources available to them. “The Courts Strategic Directions Statement clearly demonstrates that much needs to be done to safeguard the independence of the courts and provide adequate resources for the courts to meet the demands that already exist and will increase,” he said.
The Government and the courts will need to continue to work together to “ensure that Victoria has a justice system equal to the best in the world”.