By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
The New South Wales Government has announced a four-year, $148 million funding boost designed to help ease the pressure on the State’s overloaded court system.
How the money will be used
The money will be used to upgrade regional courts so they are able to accommodate for District Court cases, to appoint seven new District Court judges, and to employ additional Sheriffs officers and court staff.
Extra funding has also been set aside for juries, security upgrades and new senior lawyers at Legal Aid NSW.
In announcing the funding, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman called the current average waiting time of 690 days (22 months) between arrest and sentencing “unacceptable”.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he remarked.
The Attorney-General says the funding will also help to minimise the trauma for victims and witnesses. And with extra judges expected to facilitate faster trials, $45million of the funds have been allocated for more Crown Prosecutors and Witness Assistance Services officers.
Easing the pressure
Mr Speakman says the extra resources come at a critical time for the District Court, which is under tremendous strain.
He explained that many judicial officers are under “enormous stress” because of a heavy workload. The effects upon the mental health of magistrates and judges be exacerbated by the vicarious trauma they encounter from distressing matters.
Research has consistently found that lawyers are in the highest risk category for mental health issues, and recent studies suggest that the judiciary is especially at risk.
At a critical time
Mr Speakman has expressed concerns that the caseload of the District Court may increase as a result of the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses To Child Sexual Abuse, which has resulted in a number of criminal prosecutions.
In 2016, the New South Wales Government removed the civil limitation period for historical claims of sexual abuse, scrapping the 3-year limit to lodge civil claims.
Boost for regional areas
The Chief Judge of the District Court, Justice Derek Michael Price AM, said the package will go a long way towards enabling courts to provide additional sittings, particularly in regional areas of the state, as money will go towards providing long-overdue upgrades to regional courthouses.
Bar Association calls for urgent review
While the Bar Association has acknowledged the package will help clear backlogs, it has also called for a review into the District Court’s structure and processes, with a view to identifying and rectifying systemic issues that may affect the proper and timely administration of justice.
The Family Court and Federal Circuit Court are also currently under review by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to ensure they prioritise the best interests of children, best address family violence and child abuse, and support families, including those with complex needs.
The Family Court system has long been criticised for for being slow and expensive. As of October 2017, the Federal Circuit Court’s median time from filing to trial was 15.6 months.
The number of pending cases across both courts now exceeds 20,000 cases.
The two will courts soon merge into a single entity Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA) with operations beginning from 1 January next year to reduce unnecessary duplication and confusion for families.