Thursday, 26 September 2013

First impact of Court cost-cutting measures

First, please read this link from (sadly) Adelaide Now. This article first appeared in the Advertiser on 25 September 2013.

As you know, the Court system has been squeezed by budget cuts from all directions.

Magistrate D Whittle SM, the regional manager for the Port Pirie area, told us last month that he was struggling not to cut sitting days at Port Pirie, after a directive to cut the costs of the circuit. Currently, the Court sits for approximately 22 weeks/year at Port Pirie, for 5 days.

Mr Whittle's solution was to make Friday Pre-Trial Conferences occur by video link from Port Adelaide Magistrates Court, which reduced the costs of accomodation for a Magistrate and his staff. Secondly, he changed the Monday sittings (first appearances) to AVL as well, cutting another night from the circuit.

Unfortunately, whilst AVL is now of very high quality, it results in delays whilst matters are called on, and miscommunications between Courtrooms. Also, defendants who are being sentenced have a right to be sentenced in person; the Act specifies that a defendant must be present in Court if he is to be sentenced to a period of imprisonment.

There is a significant detriment to country practitioners, as well. Ending in late 2012, it was common for the Legal Profession in the surrounding areas and the Prosecution Unit to meet with the Magistrate socially after
the trials were completed. This usually occurred on a Thursday night, so that no-one could be accused of improper conduct during a trial.

This opportunity is now impractical, as the Magistrates usually wish to return to Port Adelaide on Thursday nights, rather than on Friday mornings. Quite reasonable, under the circumstances. The country profession, however, no longer has that opportunity, which is unfortunate.

That is a personal issue, but on a more serious note, the higher Courts (District and Supreme) are now no longer sitting as often in Port Augusta. The Supreme Court does not sit there at all, any more, which means that some defendants will need to have their matters heard in Adelaide, four hours drive away (if you live in Port Augusta; more like 6 or 7 if you live in Port Lincoln.)

The worst part in this is not the defendants. Think about the prosecution unit, who might have to have 25 witnesses travel from Port Augusta to Adelaide! All of that costs money, and the witnesses' accommodation and travel will need to be paid by the State. So in saving the cost of a Judge or Justice travelling to Port Augusta and spending a few weeks there, the State might be paying for dozens of people to travel to Adelaide, and stay there! (I guarantee the accommodation is more expensive in Adelaide!)

This short-sightedness reflects a general trend towards cost cutting, but there are, in my view, better ways of dealing with the long delays and blown-out costs of the Court system.

In the Magistrates Court, a successful party is entitled to have their costs paid by the unsuccessful party. Usually, that means that the Defendant pays the prosecutor's costs in the sum of $100.00, or the police pay the defendant's costs based on the Magistrates Court Scale of costs. But in the District Court, there is no criminal costs jurisdiction! A successful defendant does not get a cent for being unjustly charged.

Any District Court scale of costs would be greater than in the Magistrates Court, and we already use costs as a bargaining tool. "If you drop counts 1 and 2, we won't seek costs," or "No work has been done by police, we seek that our costs of this hearing be paid." Police therefore are usually very good at deciding which matters are likely to result in a conviction, and those which are not. Given the costs penalties, they often prefer not to run marginal cases to trial.

The DPP, however, does not have that fear. Their only costs in pursuing a matter to trial are their own costs, paid by the state. Therefore, they tend to pursue matters to trial which are not meritorious, and that they are going to lose, because they are worried about the reaction if they don't. Headlines: "DPP decides not to charge suspected serial rapist; conspiracy!"

But if they had to pay the costs of a successful defendant, surely they would consider the weak cases more thoroughly!

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