Court reforms increase early guilty pleas in NSW District Criminal Court

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New reforms implemented in 2018 to tackle delays in the NSW District Court have significantly increased the proportion of matters resolved by an early guilty plea according to a report released today by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).

The reforms, known as the Early Appropriate Guilty Pleas (EAGP) reforms, were introduced to improve court efficiency by reducing the number of guilty pleas entered on, or close to, the first day of trials.  The strategies to incentivise early guilty pleas included early certification of charges, increased and earlier negotiation between the defence and prosecution, continuity of legal representation, and statutory sentencing discounts for early guilty pleas.

BOCSAR evaluated EAGP by comparing outcomes for 3,612 cases initiated before the reforms with 3,100 cases initiated after the reforms commenced. The analysis found that early guilty pleas in District Court matters increased by 6.5 percentage points, rising from 70% to 76.5% (adjusting for other factors). BOCSAR also found that the reforms increased finalisations in the District Court by at least 7 additional matters each week.

It was anticipated that an increase in early guilty pleas would also reduce court delay. However, the study found that, overall, EAGP matters were not resolved faster. The reforms succeeded in reducing case processing time later in proceedings (i.e. in the District Court) but this was offset by an increase in time matters spend in the Local Court.

BOCSAR also assessed whether the reforms were implemented as intended by interviewing 35 key stakeholders, including police, prosecutors, judicial officers and legal practitioners. Stakeholders reported that most elements of the EAGP reform package were being implemented as intended. However, over two-thirds of stakeholders stated that there were delays in briefs of evidence being served and in the charge certification process. More than half reported continuity of legal representation was not always being achieved.

Commenting on the findings, BOCSAR Director, Dr Suzanne Poynton, said that, while the reforms were successful in achieving their primary aim to increase early guilty pleas, there is still room for improvement. “Stakeholders have identified a number of areas where refinements could be made to the EAGP model in order to maximise their benefits”.

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