The NSW Government announced plans last year to close or reduce the sitting days at a number of small courthouses across the state in an attempt to reduce budget costs.
For anyone who has ever visited a courthouse during the week, these courts are never empty houses.
They are constantly alive with cases being heard, and closing them affects the community in a number of ways.
Cases are pushed to other courthouses, which places extra pressure on magistrates and court staff there, cases can take longer to be resolved, and vulnerable people such as the victims of domestic violence are impacted by being forced to travel further to have their matters heard.
Sittings at North Sydney and Ryde local courts have already been redirected to other courthouses this year, and there are a several other courts, including Camden and Windsor, which are under threat of closure or reduced sitting days.
Impact on the vulnerable
Closing local courts can result in people having to travel further, which can be a barrier to some sectors of the community, including domestic violence victims and those from Indigenous backgrounds, accessing the justice system.
It can also be onerous for those who are defending a driving matter and are unable to drive until their matters are resolved.
There are concerns that the local court closures will particularly impact the victims of domestic violence.
There are numerous cases involving domestic violence heard each week in courts across NSW.
Women, children and some men who have been victims of domestic violence often fear for their safety.
They need protection, and swiftly so, from the police and the courts. Those who have committed acts of domestic violence are punished in the courts.
Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) are issued in the courts to prevent the commission of harassment, intimidation or violence on the applicants.
Closing community courthouses places victims at risk of continued and unreported domestic violence.
For example, it is feared the closure of North Sydney Local Court will lead to domestic violence going unreported, with victims now having to travel further to Downing Centre Local Court in the Sydney CBD to have people held accountable and AVOs enforced.
Northern Sydney Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service co-ordinator Josie Gregory said the service had supported up to 15 women a week at North Sydney, and that requiring them to appear at a big city court rather than a local one had an impact.
“It’s hard enough to get them to come to court as they are often fearful, embarrassed and emotionally traumatised – going across the bridge is a physical and emotional barrier for them,” she said in a Daily Telegraph article.
Strain on courts already carrying a heavy load
Very few people involved in the judicial system would argue that courts are over- resourced.
There have been numerous budget cutbacks over the years to administration and staffing levels.
For example, there have been cuts to custody management, which is responsible for the transport, containment and safety of defendants who are in custody and are required to appear in court.
Many staff members lost their job as a result of the cuts. There have even been cases of vacant magistrate positions in courts remaining unfulfilled.
As the budget cuts of last year anticipated numerous administrative job losses across the courts in 2014, police powers of arrest have also been increased substantially.
The result: more arrests with less judicial staff and resources to manage those arrests.
Redirecting cases from closed courthouses to other courts adds to the strain.
It means magistrates and court staff members in these other courts are being required to deal with larger lists.
This not only places increasing pressure on court staff and magistrates presiding, it adds to the already untimely way in which cases are being managed.
These untimely delays affect defendants on bail or in custody.
Their freedom should not be compromised because of delays due to budget cutbacks shutting courthouses.
The Law Society of NSW raised concerns about the under-resourcing of courts and the impact of court closures in a letter to the NSW Attorney General’s Department in March.
“The Law Society is concerned that magistrate numbers within the local court and children’s court are being reduced and that staffing levels have been depleted across the various levels of jurisdiction including the Sheriff’s Office. The resultant staggered closure or scaling back of some local courts throughout the state is a development requiring reconsideration as it raises important issues of access to justice,” President Ros Everett said in the letter.
The extra pressure on the courts as a result of cutbacks and court closures may have an impact on the way in which justice is administered, and time should not be a factor in the disposal of justice.