Serious cases weigh heavily on District Courts
If ever there was an example of how volume alone is not always the best way to measure workload, look no further than our District Courts.
The trends are bearing out what judges have been reporting to me for some time: that while there have been fewer criminal cases overall in the system since 2009, they are more serious and more complex – and on the rise.
For everyone involved in the administration and delivery of justice, that translates to more work, not less.
Complex matters move more slowly through the system, and this is exacerbated when they start dominating the courts’ work.
Provisional court data shows that in the three years to July this year, new business from Category 3 offences grew by one quarter. Last year, active cases of this type grew faster than active cases overall. By the end of last year, these more serious cases accounted for more than half the active criminal cases in District Courts.
A Category 3 case takes more than twice as long to proceed as a less serious class. Even a small rise in serious cases can slow down the process, and this compounds over time to balloon the number of criminal cases before our courts.
It also adds to delays and frustration for your profession, as well as prosecuting agencies and, most importantly, for complainants, defendants and witnesses.
Dissatisfaction surfaces in the news media sometimes, often voiced by lawyers concerned about rights to access justice.
I acknowledge that some courts have longer waiting times for trials than others.
This is partly a consequence of external forces, including police prosecution practices, availability of parties and specialists, and variations in approaches taken by the local Bar, for instance in relation to adjournments and jury-trial election.
It is also a result of spreading finite resources across large geographical distances and diverse communities.
Judges share the frustration and feel the pressures keenly, not least because the inflows of new business and nature of offences are beyond our control.
However, we are constantly trying ways to relieve the strain, especially in process and procedural areas where we can make a difference, such as through developing more nimble judicial rostering and scheduling techniques and encouraging more discipline in pre-trial hearings.
Judges target jury-trial delays in particular, and we are using innovative tools to spread judicial resources across regions to smooth out jury trial timeframes. We continue to give priority to older cases and sentencing. All this in a system dealing with more than 30,000 judge-alone and jury trials at their various stages.
The District Courts are a dynamic environment where sometimes the smallest variable can have big impacts, but our judges will continue to make every effort to achieve the timely delivery of justice.