Baird government commits $20m to help alleviate court delay ‘crisis’

“Delays put victims through undue stress, make it harder for witnesses to recall key details and strain the resources of the justice system”: NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Baird government has responded to mounting criticism of extensive delays in criminal trials reaching the District Court with a $20 million spending boost to help slash the backlog by 640 cases.

Extra sitting weeks in western Sydney and regional courts, the appointment of temporary judges and more public defenders, and pretrial conferencing and call-over courts to encourage early guilty pleas will be immediately funded.

By September, the backlog had reached 2055 cases, more than double the level in 2007.

It takes an average of 369 days for a case to be finalised in court where an accused person is on bail (up 34 per cent from 2007), and an average of 300 days when the person is in custody (up 44 per cent), according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics.

Aggravated sexual assault, including child sexual assault, and drug offences make up the majority of cases facing delay.

“Delays put victims through undue stress, make it harder for witnesses to recall key details and strain the resources of the justice system,” said NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton.

“This is going to make a real difference to our justice system and more importantly to people’s lives.”

Two successive Chief Justices, Reginald Blanch and Derek Price, had warned the NSW government a “vast increase” in criminal trials since the Liberals and Nationals won office in 2011, caused by a funding boost to police, had coincided with cuts to the number of judges.

“This decline in performance will continue until the court is sufficiently resourced,” Justice Price wrote in his annual review.

The NSW Law Reform Commission had warned the district court was “in, or approaching a state of crisis”.

NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics director Don Weatherburn has said the delays were contributing to prison overcrowding, and called for the entire criminal justice system to be examined.

In a report, Dr Weatherburn suggested a boost in temporary judges to expand the court’s capacity to respond to the worsening backlog.

Ms Upton has adopted the NSW Law Reform Commission’s recommendation to focus on encouraging early guilty pleas.

A third of guilty pleas were made late, and two-thirds of these were entered on the day of the trial, causing “considerable inefficiency”, the commission said.

Dr Weatherburn’s report said late pleas caused substantial amounts of court time to be wasted.

Additional criminal sitting weeks for the court will be expanded immediately, while a trial of call-over courts will identify matters that can be resolved with a guilty plea. Longer trials of more than 20 days will hold pretrial conferencing between the prosecution and defence.

Ms Upton said: “The package will alleviate the pressure in the short term, allowing the NSW government to work with key stakeholders on systemic reform.”

The acting judges will be funded for two years, and may become permanent appointments if this is endorsed by a wider review to be undertaken in 2016.

An Auditor-General’s report last month found the number of cases older than 12 months has risen by 177.4 per cent, to 369 cases, since 2007.

Two specialist child sexual assault judges were appointed in August, but there are still four fewer judges than in 2007.

The District Court lost seven sitting weeks last year.

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