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Review of Justice Legislation Amendment (Committals reform) Act

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The Society has consulted with the Social Justice Committee and has had the opportunity to consider the submissions of the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) and the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission (NTLAC) and has consulted with members of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory (CLANT) prior to drafting this response.

The Society is supportive of reforms that streamline Court processes and minimize time spent on remand. The stated objectives of the reforms were to ?streamline committal proceedings to avoid situations where witnesses attend court unnecessarily. ?to [relieve] stress on witnesses associated with having to give evidence at committal and trial and to ensure committals are run more efficiently? (Hon Delia Lawrie Second Reading Speech). The Society affirms these objectives as appropriate and notes however that efficiencies and policy objectives must be demonstrated to have eventuated.

Importance of Committals

The Society affirms the importance of the committals process which these reforms are not intended to undermine. In the event that these reforms can lead to financial saving this cannot be at the expense of a fair trial. Additionally if it can be identified that the reforms have ameliorated the concerns for witnesses has this created new concerns or exacerbated others.

In the Society?s view an effective committals process would be cost effective and time efficient. An effective committals process should identify at an early stage where a matter ought to proceed or if there is insufficient evidence. An effective committals process would strike the right balance between the interests of witnesses and alleged offenders and the efficient use of limited court time.

Efficiency

One of the objectives of the reforms is to make the committals process more efficient. If efficiency is counted as court hours or actual cost of court time this is not information currently at the Society?s disposal. As highlighted above the Society is keen to ensure law reform is evidenced based. To this end the Society echoes the desire of the NTLAC to see analysis and publication of available data to draw out the efficiency gains from the reforms if any.

The Department of Justice and or Corrections would have at its disposal significant data about Court use. In particular the Society would like to see an analysis of this data to reflect the impact of the reforms by comparing the twelve months prior and twelve months since the introduction of the reforms. In the Society?s view this analysis should be conducted by an external provider. The analysis should be of files in which offences are charged on Information, observing the following information:

  • How long:
    • between the laying of charges and case finalisation in the Supreme Court
    • defendants are remanded in custody
    • between the laying of charges and end of summary proceedings (whether by plea, summary hearing, committal or withdrawal)
    • between commencement and finalisation of proceedings in the Supreme Court

Number of court events in:

    • a magistrates court
    • the Supreme Court
  • Total time allocated to the matter in:
    • a magistrates court
    • the Supreme Court
  • Proportion of matters which proceeded to disposal by:
    • summary hearing
    • jury trial
    • summary plea
    • Supreme Court plea
    • withdrawal in a magistrates court
    • nolle prosequi or No True Bill
  • The sitting cost per hour of:
    • a magistrates court
    • the Supreme Court:
  1. presided over by a registrar
  2. presided over by a judge
  3. presided over by a judge and jury

It is the Society?s submission that the analysis will show that

  • There has been a cost/time shift from the Magistrates Court to the Supreme Court
  • Time on remand is greater since the introduction of the reforms
  • Time on bail has increased
  • Overall there is a significant increase in the cost of disposing of matters.

It is the Society?s assumption that time in the Supreme Court is more costly than before a magistrate. The Society also notes that in recent months there has been an apparent explosion of people on remand and the Society questions if this is as a result of these reforms.

Stress on witnesses

It is the Society?s submissions that some aspects of the reforms have increased stress on witnesses. In particular the current practice is to hand up witness statements rather than require oral evidence. There is concern that police statements are frequently obtained without the use of interpreters and failing to require oral evidence can result in the witness being embarrassed by discrepancies emerging at a later time. There is no evidence that this practice benefits witnesses.

Restrictions on cross-examination also draw out the final disposition of the matter which places a further burden on witnesses. This is of particular concern in Central Australia where Supreme Court sitting dates are severely restricted and hearings are thus significantly delayed in excess of six months.

Additionally it appears that there is a presumption against the granting of leave to cross-examine which results in witnesses being tested on their recollection in the Supreme Court hearing and the ability of the witness to recall events or their evidence in a statement may be reduced and thus their embarrassment increased by this delay.

Unintended consequences

The Society is also troubled by reports that there are unforeseen consequences of the amendments that are particularly evident in Alice Springs

  • Youth justice offenders being denied opportunity for summary hearing where co-offender is an adult and the convenience of the prosecution witnesses is considered paramount to the interests of the child.
  • People spending longer on remand than they would had they pleaded guilty to the offence.
  • Limitations on the cross-examination based on ?expediency? rather than the rules of evidence
  • Delays in holding over preliminary examinations to the same Magistrate as they are considered ?part-heard.?

Conclusion

In summary it is important the appropriate balance be struck. Ultimately

  • it is yet to be demonstrated that there are any financial efficiencies resulting from the reforms.
  • It is yet to be established that there is any court time saving from the reform.
  • It is equally yet to be established that there has been positive impact on witnesses experience.
  • It is open to question whether these reforms have had detrimental impacts on the administration of justice or if they have generating further hardships.

The Society looks forward to consideration of the analysis and financial impact as out lined above. Until such time as the benefits can be demonstrated and the concerns expressed above alleviated the Society?s position in respect of the reforms remains un-decided.

Office Location

Level 3, 9 Cavenagh Street
Darwin NT 0800

Mailing Address

GPO Box 2388
Darwin NT 0801

Contact

Phone: 08 8981 5104
Fax: 08 8941 1623
Email: lawsoc@lawsocietynt.asn.au

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