VICTORIA’S SHADOW Attorney-General, Robert Clark, has jumped on recent findings of the Australian Government Productivity Commission, claiming that Victorian courts are some of the slowest and most expensive in the country.
Judging by the Commission’s Report on Government Services 2008 released last week, Victorian courts do seem to be dragging behind their NSW counterparts when it comes to conquering case backlogs.
Clark believes the Report’s findings warrant serious attention. “I think we’ve got to ask some hard questions about how well the courts in Victoria are being run. NSW is the closest comparable state and they clearly have much shorter backlogs and cases seem to be handled in a much more timely and efficient manner,” he said.
For criminal matters, the report shows that as at June last year, 24 per cent of non-appeal cases and 14 per cent of appeal cases at the District/County Court level in Victoria were more than 12 months old, compared to just 10 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in NSW.
Victoria also compared poorly to the national standard, under which no more than 10 per cent of cases should be taking more than 12 months to complete. However Victoria is not alone, with Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland also all having between 18 and 30 per cent of non-appeal cases stretching out past the one year mark.
Things are looking even grimmer at the Victorian Supreme Court, with 34 per cent of non-appeal cases (the highest percentage of any Australian state or territory) and 23 per cent of appeal cases (second only to the ACT) taking more than a year to finalise.
According to Clarke, this represents a 28 per cent increase in the backlog of non-appeal cases and more than a 200 per cent increase in the backlog of appeal cases since 2003.
The NSW Supreme Court certainly looks more efficient on paper, with just 13 per cent of non-appeal cases and 1 per cent of appeal cases taking longer than a year to complete - a reduction in the backlog since 2003. However the Commission’s report points out that due to its particular criminal case mix (principally murder and manslaughter cases), the NSW Supreme Court shouldn’t be compared directly with other states in criminal matters.
It’s a similar story with civil cases, with Victoria having 36 per cent of non-appeal and 21 per cent of appeal cases at the District/County Court level taking longer than a year to complete, compared with 26 per cent and 0 per cent respectively in NSW. At the Supreme/Federal Court level, NSW and Victoria both had around 26 per cent of non-appeal cases taking over a year — a better result that the smaller states. However, Victoria is well-behind NSW and all other states other than Tasmania in terms of appeal cases, with 28 per cent of cases in Victoria taking longer than a year to complete compared to 15 per cent in NSW.
Clark pointed to the outdated court facilities as a likely cause of the problem. “[Victorian Attorney-General] Rob Hulls has promised in the past a new CBD court precinct master plan, but after the upgrade of the Banco Court that seems to have been put on the backburner. Certainly our Supreme Court is struggling in very outdated facilities,” he said.
In response, a spokesperson for Attorney-General Hulls said that the backlogs have been exacerbated by some “long and complex trials dealing with police corruption, gangland killings and organised crime”. The spokesperson also pointed out that funding to the court system has increased significantly under the state Labor Government.
“Since coming into office in 1999, the government has increased funding to the Courts by $121.2 million, or 66.8 per cent. The 2007—08 state budget included significant additional resources for our courts and included a $110 million plan to further improve the justice system and deliver justice for all Victorians,” the spokesperson said. “Our courts are operating efficiently, but like any organisation, there is also room for improvement.”