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Response to the Report into Committals Reform

In developing this response the Society has conducted consultations with its Social Justice Committee which brings together many decades of experience in the criminal justice jurisdiction in the Territory. Then Society has also had the opportunity to consider the responses prepared by the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission (NTLAC), Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid (CAALAS) and Northern Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) to the Report prior to drafting this response.

The Society notes the reforms of 2010 and reiterates its agreement with the overall objective of streamlining court processes and alleviating unnecessary burdens on witnesses during the committal process[1]. The Society views these objectives as important, but recognises the pursuits of such objectives must be tempered by the need to maintain an individual?s right to a fair trial and an appropriate balance must be struck between these objectives.

Summary:

In summary the Society?s position on the Report and on the question of abolishing committals is as follows:

  • abolishing committals will result in diluting or removing important individual rights;
  • the data provided in the Report:
    • does not adequately demonstrate efficiency gains are directly attributable to the reforms of 2010; and
    • no evidence is provided specifically addressing the impacts of an abolition of the committals process; and
  • further data collection and analysis of the Court?s operation is required, preferably by an independent provider.

Committals Protect Individual Rights

The Society is supportive of reforms that streamline the operation of the Court and it is mindful of the Court?s role in delivering a fair trial to defendants. The Society recognises that these two objectives can at times be in contest with each other and it is necessary that a balance is stuck between these two needs when considering reforms aimed at streamlining the operation of the Courts.

An individual?s right to a fair trial and their right not to be subject to a criminal trial where there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction is an important aspect of the criminal justice system and these rights are fundamental in a just society. An individual who is subject to criminal proceedings for an indictable offence and who is not afforded the opportunity of a committal, would concern the Society.

A committal proceeding affords defendants:

  • the ability to seek to have the charges against them dismissed by the Court;
  • the opportunity of circumstances that may result in the prosecution withdrawing the charges; and
  • an opportunity discover relevant information about the prosecution?s case which may assist their defense.

A committal proceeding assist the Courts by:

  • eliminating weak cases before they are committed to trial;
  • identifying guilty pleas early on in the prosecution process:
    • enabling the Court to more efficiently utilise its time and resources; and
    • minimising stress and anxiety for victims and defendants alike; and
  • allowing the prosecution and defense the opportunity to clarify and narrow the issues which could cause dispute at the trial, leading to a shorter trial duration.

The view of the Society is that committals can be beneficial for the Courts, the community and defendants. Although the Society accepts that committals may at times consume valuable Court resources and at times the gains to the defendant may be slight, but the view is that overall, committals value-add to the criminal justice system as a whole.

It is important that the justice system delivers to every defendant, every time, a fair trial and abolishing or limiting access to committals will mean some defendants sometimes may be treated unfairly. The non-financial cost to the justice system of abolishing committals is not in the view of the Society justified. Reforms limited to improving efficiencies throughout the committal process are supported, but abolishing them from the jurisdiction or alternatively offering committals to defendants in only limited circumstances is not.

Impact of Reforms of 2010?

The Society is encouraged by the data presented in the Report demonstrating the Courts have experienced some efficiency gains over the period 2010-2013. The Society notes the concerns it raised previously with the Department twelve months after the reforms were introduced. In this earlier response the Society raised the need to exercise caution when making conclusions on limited evidence. Although the Society recognises the current Report presents additional data, it nevertheless is the view of the Society that it is still preliminary at this stage and is not sufficient for the purposes of making an informed conclusion regarding the real impacts of the reforms of 2010.

The Society notes some of the movements in the data, specifically increases in the number of matters before the courts, were largely of a particular nature that is, outstanding old warrants which the courts and police prosecution had sought to clear up during the reporting period. It is evident the clearing up of old warrants has in part skewed the data presented in the Report, resulting in some of the data being unreliable for the purposes of accurately extrapolating the real impacts of the reforms of 2010 over the longer term.

The Society is also aware of improvements in Court practices during the same period over which the data was collected and which it believes contributed to efficiencies that are reflected in the data. For example improvements in the Court?s case management practices have valued-added to reducing the length of time taken to finalise matters. For these reasons the Society questions the extent to which the efficiency gains recorded are explained simply by the reforms of 2010 and the Society advises some caution in reading too much into the data at this stage.

No Evidence Regarding Impact of the Abolition of Committals

As discussed above the committal process can provide individuals with important protections of their basic rights to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system. The Society is therefore concerned by the proposition that committals may be dispensed with, and without it first being demonstrated that such a move will not have detrimental impacts:

  • on the operation of the Court;
  • on the rights of defendants;
  • on witnesses; and
  • the trial process, as a result of losing the opportunity to test the prosecution?s case against them.

The Society is concerned the above outcomes are a very real possibility if such a move was taken. The Society suggests that even if the reforms of 2010 can be demonstrated to have directly contributed to significant Court efficiencies, it is a bridge too far to propose that it is necessary for dispensing with committals in their entirety.

A genuine consideration around the removal of committals from this jurisdiction, to achieve the objective of improving the operation of the Courts warrants a specific investigation into the likely impacts on the Court system as a whole. The data presented in the Report is of a system where committals are in use and in order to understand whether there is value in dispensing with committals, it is necessary that projections are made as to how the existing data will change to accommodate the removal of this aspect of the process. No such analysis is presented in this Report, and as such no evidence is presented that addresses directly to the question of the abolition of committals.

It may be useful if additional data was collected for the exercise, including:

  • overall Court costs, as Magistrates costs presumably differ from the costs of operating the Supreme Court;
  • the length of time defendants are remanded in custody; and
  • the length of time defendants are subject to bail conditions.

Independent Analysis

The Society reiterates its view that the committal process represents an important aspect of the criminal justice system and evidence is required to ensure unintended and negative consequences on the Courts, witnesses and defendants do not result upon its removal. The Society considers it prudent for the Department to consult an independent provided to conduct such an analysis and who is also in a position to generate projections as to the likely effects of dispensing with committals.

The Society is keen to contribute to the improvement of this jurisdiction and would be happy to contribute further to this process.


[1] The Society uses the term ?committal? throughout this letter in the place of the new description of ?preliminary examination?.

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