MOST STATES will increase spending to deal with lengthening delays in the courts, with some resorting to unorthodox measures in the lower courts.
With all major state budgets now released, most are planning to spend more on the judicial system.
In April, South Australia appointed two local lawyers — one a lawyer managing a legal team at an Aboriginal legal service, and the other a special counsel at a private law firm — as its first two part-time magistrates.
State Attorney-General Michael Atkinson said the law was changed last year to allow the appointments. He said they would help reduce backlogs, as well as introducing “flexible work practices” to the courts.
“Clearly bringing part-time magistrates into the system will give the courts greater flexibility in how their time can best be deployed,” Atkinson said.
Prior to the state’s budget, Queensland announced its biggest judicial boost in a decade, with an extra judge to be appointed in the Court of Appeal, the District Court and a new magistrate, which will add to the 85 magistrates, 35 District Court judges and 24 Supreme Court judges in Queensland.
A spokesperson for the Queensland Attorney-General, Kerry Shine, said they had not yet consulted with the profession or the judiciary on who the new appointments would be, but an announcement would be made soon in the new financial year.
He said the backlogs were increasing in part due to continued high growth in migration to Queensland from southern states.
The state will also spend $2.4 million over three years piloting a new position of “judicial registrar”, which will see court registrars hear minor, less complex cases in Brisbane, Beenleigh and Southport Magistrates Courts to reduce backlogs.
New South Wales last week announced record funding levels of $716 million for the Attorney-General’s Department, up 9.6 per cent on the previous financial year, although there are no new judges. The spending includes $103 million on upgrading and expanding court houses.
However, some areas have dropped, including a fall of 3.3 per cent in finding for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to $94.5 million for 2007—08.
“The Law Society will be monitoring closely the issue of funding for the Office of the DPP to ensure that the criminal justice system in NSW is not compromised by funding cuts,” said Law Society president Geoff Dunlevy.
Marilyn Warren, Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court recently noted in the first “State of the Judicature” address that Victoria’s judges were becoming “dangerously” overworked, but welcomed Victoria’s moves to boost the number of judges as part of its budget announcements earlier this year.
The state will spend an extra $110 million over the next four years on the justice system, including $45 million to appoint two additional Supreme Court judges, two more County Court judges and extra support staff in the courts, Corrections Victoria and the Office of Public Prosecutions.
Another $2 million will also be spent on professional development for judicial officers.
The other big item is $43 million to implement recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform Committee to improve the delivery of coronial services, including renovating the coronial courts and better facilities.
There’s also a 30 per cent increase in funding to $8.4 million for pain and suffering compensation for victims of crime.
Earlier this month, Western Australia, which has some of the longest delays in the country, announced a retired magistrate would be appointed as an acting magistrate for 12 months to help clear delays in the courts in Bunbury, Rockingham, Armadale and the Goldfields region.
“There has been an increase in the listing interval for hearings in Magistrates Courts around the state,” said Attorney-General Jim McGinty.
“This is one of several strategies put in place to alleviate the situation at those courts with the longest delays.”
In the state budget, it was noted that the WA District Court had the longest delays in criminal matters compared to its equivalents in other states, and this remained a problem.
Although time to trial has improved from an average of 58 weeks in 2005—06 to 53 weeks in 2006—07, “this continues to be a significant issue for accused persons, victims of crime and their respective families”, budget papers state.
And time to trial for civil cases in the District Court has increased from 88 weeks in 2005—06, to 92 weeks in 2006—07.
The state is also introducing five new Family Violence Courts around the state, which provide magistrates with more flexibility when making their decisions, including referring offenders to rehabilitation programs for up to six months before sentencing. Their progress can be taken into account in their final sentence.