|Review of Justice Legislation Amendment (Committals reform) Act|
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.
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:
Number of court events in:
It is the Society’s submission that the analysis will show that
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.
The Society is also troubled by reports that there are unforeseen consequences of the amendments that are particularly evident in Alice Springs
In summary it is important the appropriate balance be struck. Ultimately
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.