It is widely acknowledged that the Court system in South Australia should be processing matters at a faster rate, writes TGB managing partner Morry Bailes.
In an attempt to deal with this issue, the Statutes Amendment (Courts Efficiency Reforms) Bill 2012 has been tabled in state parliament, and is designed to deal with backlogs and trial delays.
In a criminal court certain matters have to be committed to be dealt with in a higher court. These are either minor indictable matters, where an accused person has elected to have their matter heard in a superior court, or they are major indictable matters which require committal to a higher court.
As soon as you go through the process of a committal it adds time to the resolution of the matter, so one of the initiatives being contemplated by the Bill is that if there is the consent of both parties, a Magistrate of the inferior Court could otherwise deal with the major indictable matter by taking a plea of guilty and sentencing. This means that the matter can be concluded sooner than otherwise. There are also other measures in the Bill to increase the civil jurisdictions of the Magistrates Court designed to further reduce the workload of superior courts.
However, this doesn’t overcome the proliferation of minor indictable offences. An example is the offence of assault. If this offence is committed by a police officer, who is in a position of authority, it is immediately categorised as an “aggravated” assault. This is laid as a minor indictable matter rather than a simple assault, which is laid as a summary matter. A minor indictable matter can be committed up for trial before a jury, often preventing the matter from being wrapped up quickly in the Magistrates Court. The “aggravated” category has been added by the legislature to offences over the last decade, which is one of the reasons why the superior courts are clogged up.
One of the other reasons for delay, which impacts summary rather than superior courts, is the inadequacy of prosecution services. I don’t mean that individual prosecutors are in any way inadequate; there are many very experienced prosecutors who do a good job, but they are under resourced. Therefore they have difficulty complying with orders of the court, for example, to disclose and produce documents and evidence. That leads to delay, because the matter is then adjourned, sometimes more than once.
If prosecution sections are to operate effectively, they must have both adequate personnel and systems at their disposal. If law and order is to be a mantra of governments, then proper resourcing of Police Prosecution sections must follow.
It has also been said that the courts themselves are a problem. There are a limited number of jury courts and criminal courts in South Australia. There have been occasions when, ironically, there are sufficient judges available but not enough courts.
It is also broadly accepted that the Supreme and District Courts in South Australia are run down and inadequate, and ought to be improved. When you look at our new Commonwealth law courts building, there’s no comparison.
This was highlighted recently by our retiring Chief Justice, John Doyle, who after being confined to a wheelchair following an accident, was unable to enter his own chamber and court. To have no wheelchair access in the 21st century is unacceptable.
The court process in South Australia is sluggish but there are a number of ways to ease the pressure and create a greater flow. The Courts Efficiency Reform Bill is certainly a step in the right direction but is not all that can and should be done.