A new suite of reforms implemented to tackle delays in the NSW District Court in 2016 and 2017 has significantly increased the number of matters being finalised.
The reforms involved:
- Creation of additional sitting weeks (including the appointment of additional judges).
- Special call-overs – days in district criminal courts where the public defenders try to negotiate with defendants awaiting trial in an attempt to finalise multiple matters on that day.
- Readiness hearings for long trials – a system of hearings and case management for trials with an expected duration of more than 3 weeks to ensure that both the prosecution and the defence are ready to proceed on the start date for the trial.
- Appointment of additional public defenders.
The reforms were evaluated by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR). BOCSAR found that the additional judges increased monthly total finalisations across the state by approximately 8.5 cases per judge (approximately 43 cases after all 5 judges had commenced).
In many courts, the special call-overs also increased finalisations, with increases ranging between 9 and 39 cases (although the special call-over in the Parramatta court did not appear to have an effect).
The finalisations did not appear to change after the introduction of the two additional public defenders. The report notes, however, that only two additional public defenders were appointed, which translates to an increase of only 8%. It also notes that the public defenders are central to the special call-overs, which generated strong effects in almost all courts.
The readiness hearings also showed no association with changes in finalisations in Sydney. However the readiness hearings were targeted at trials whose duration was greater than 3 weeks. In 2016, this accounted for approximately 13% of all trials, so the proportion of all trials targeted by this intervention is quite small.
Commenting on the findings, the Executive Director of BOCSAR, Dr Don Weatherburn, said that, while the District Court backlog was now stable, much work remained to be done before it was down to a satisfactory level.
“The early appropriate guilty plea reforms and the appointment of additional judges (recently announced by the Attorney General) should help in that regard.”