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Justice Statement sketches Victoria’s future

Cover Story

Cite as: (2004) 78(7) LIJ, p. 20

State Attorney-General Rob Hulls has released his blueprint for the development of the Victorian Justice system over the next decade.

By Jason Silverii

The state government has released a 10-year plan to make Victoria’s justice system more efficient, cohesive and sensitive to the needs of victims, minorities and the disadvantaged.

The Attorney-General’s Justice Statement, which took two years to complete, lists 25 initiatives to be implemented within a decade to modernise the justice system.

Releasing the statement on 27 May, Attorney- General Rob Hulls said the blueprint set the government’s vision for justice for the next five to 10 years.

“It is the product of the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of our legal system by the Department of Justice,” he said.

The Law Institute and other legal groups welcomed the general direction of the statement, but expressed some disappointment at the lack of detail.

Among the major initiatives announced in the Justice Statement were:

  • a review of jurisdictional thresholds between the Supreme, County and Magistrates’ Courts;
  • a review of the Crimes Act 1958, the Evidence Act 1958 and the Bail Act 1997;
  • an overhaul of criminal and civil rules of procedure;
  • the establishment of a process of discussion with the community on human rights, including examining a charter of human rights and responsibilities; and
  • increasing the age limit of the Children’s Court from 17 to 18.

One of the major areas to be reformed as outlined by the Justice Statement is the relationship between the Supreme, County, Magistrates’ and PERIN Courts.

The statement says that the state government will examine the jurisdictional relationships between the Supreme and County Courts, the County and Magistrates’ Courts, the Magistrates’ and PERIN Courts and the breadth of County Court appeal rights.

With regard to the relationship between the Supreme and County Courts, the Justice Statement says that there are two reasons for considering expansion of the Supreme Court’s role.

“First, there may be complex trials being heard in the County Court that should be more appropriately heard in the state’s superior court.

“Second, and subject to the availability of adequate resources, the capacity of the County Court to deal with its workload would be enhanced by trying such complex and significant trials in the Supreme Court.

“The government will work with the courts to identify opportunities for improved coordination between the Supreme and County Courts to allow their workloads to be shared where appropriate.”

The government will examine offences currently triable only in the County Court with a view to identifying whether they can also be heard in the Magistrates’ Court.

It will also raise the Magistrates’ Court’s jurisdictional limit for the value of property destroyed, damaged or stolen to bring it into line with the imminent rise of its civil jurisdictional limit from $40,000 to $100,000.

The government has also confirmed it will carry out a long-time promise to raise the jurisdictional age of the Children’s Court from 17 to 18 years. This move will take 17-year-olds out of the adult justice and jail system.

This reform has drawn applause from the Law Institute, which has long lobbied for the jurisdiction change.

Institute CEO John Cain said the announcement was “a significant change in policy” that would be well received by the profession.

With regard to the management of courts, the Justice Statement proposes to build better communications between the state jurisdictions to help improve the use of resources.

The government will improve coordination between the courts and the agencies that provide and receive the business of the courts, especially in the criminal jurisdiction. These bodies include the Office of Public Prosecutions, Victoria Police and Victoria Legal Aid.

The Justice Statement raises ways to improve the current capacity of courts in the areas of information technology, research and management information, staff, facilities and budget.

In terms of information technology, the Justice Statement says most of the current system is ageing and has little flexibility to support the changes envisaged by the Justice Statement and the yet-to-be-released Court Strategic Directions.

A planned integrated courts management system will provide an electronic registry with a common entry point for all courts, better online court information and urgent development of electronic case document management.

The government will develop a strategic facilities plan as a blueprint for the design and construction of future court facilities.

“It will address emerging pressures, such as the ageing and cramped accommodation used by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), and the increasing diversity of services provided from court buildings,” the Justice Statement says.

However, the Justice Statement does not specifically mention a new building for the Supreme Court, for which the Law Institute has recently lobbied.

Speaking after the release of the statement, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren said she was unaware at this stage of the government’s plans for a new building.

One of the more detailed sections of the Justice Statement deals with a review and rewrite of three major pieces of legislation: the Crimes Act 1958, the Evidence Act 1958 and the Bail Act 1977.

The statement describes the Crimes Act as an “increasingly difficult and inaccessible piece of legislation”.

“The Act is no longer logical or coherent and is really an ad-hoc compilation of almost self-contained Acts.

“This is not just a housekeeping issue. Slight differences between similar provisions in the Act result in wasteful and time-consuming technical arguments over how to interpret and apply the provisions.”

The review of the Act will modernise the language and elements of the most important offences and consolidate and clarify the existing law rather than redefine or codify principles.

Similar reviews will be conducted for the Evidence Act and Bail Act.

The government will also review the state’s criminal and civil procedures.

Among the criminal procedural reforms being mooted are:

  • increasing the capacity for judicial management of cases in the Supreme and County Courts;
  • investigating the viability of a sentence indication scheme to encourage defendants wanting to plead guilty;
  • another review of the committals process to ascertain the success of the 1999 review and where further reforms can be made; and
  • expanding the deferred sentencing option to allow greater scope for restorative justice initiatives.

In the civil area, the Justice Statement calls for greater consistency in civil litigation procedures between courts and reforms to the processes for beginning litigation, including the possibility of common commencement forms between jurisdictions.

Other potential areas of civil procedure reform include compelling plaintiffs to be more specific about which causes of action they intended to rely on in their pleadings and a restriction of discovery to documents directly relevant to the issues.

The statement also makes a push for increased use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) through its Gateways to Justice project.

The project will identify the spectrum of ADR services, develop an approach to dealing with different types of disputes and provide information on the best services to deal with those disputes.

It will provide ways to allow a matter to move easily between ADR services.

The government will enact legislation that will give magistrates the same power as Supreme and County Court judges to order mediation between litigants.

The Justice Statement confirms the government’s new framework for the regulation of the legal profession, which was released last year.

The new framework will include a Legal Services Board, which will be the peak body in the regulatory system.

A Legal Services Commissioner will be the single entry point for complaints and will have the power to investigate and prosecute lawyers. The Commissioner will have the power to delegate that power to the Institute or the Victorian Bar.

It is anticipated that VCAT will hear all prosecutions against lawyers and civil disputes between lawyers and their clients in a Legal Practice List.

While the Justice Statement deals mainly with court and legislative processes and procedures, it also examines ways to protect and enhance human rights and to address disadvantage through the justice system.

One of the suggested ways to protect human rights is the introduction of a charter of human rights and responsibilities, known in some countries as a Bill of Rights.

The statement calls for a public discussion on the best form of enshrining human rights and responsibilities.

It says that a US-style Bill of Rights was the least appropriate form for Victoria’s Parliamentary democracy as opposed to the Statutory Charter of Rights favoured by the UK and New Zealand.

In terms of reducing discrimination, the government will look at new ways to improve compliance with the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 through such means as industry-based codes of practice, accreditation and model-employer schemes.

It will encourage employers to audit and monitor their workforces to identify barriers to employment and will also vet all legislation to ensure unintended discrimination does not happen.

The government will look to expand the use of current programs and specific problem-solving courts, such as Koori Courts and Drug Courts.

It will also look to develop a Victims’ Charter that will state the rights of victims of crime, including their right to protection, information, compensation and support during the court process.

Writing in the introduction of the Justice Statement, Mr Hulls said the document was “not a culmination but an inception”.

Yet despite this assurance, the legal profession has expressed disappointment at the lack of detail in the 71-page document.

Mr Cain said the blueprint should have contained more detail.

“There are many broad-brush statements with lots more work to be done.

“The opportunity for the Institute and the legal profession in that is to ensure we are in on the ground floor in working with the government as they put the meat on the bones of the Justice Statement.”

Victorian Bar Council chair Robin Brett QC said the statement was “a good start” but had a long way to go before it became a series of concrete changes.

“I am not surprised because I think it was only ever intended to be a general overall statement of objectives,” Mr Brett said.

“But yes, we certainly do see that pretty much every single part of it needs to be refined and developed and put into a series of concrete proposals.”

Mr Brett applauded many of the government’s initiatives, including the lifting of the Magistrates’ Court’s civil jurisdiction limit to $100,000, the review of the three major pieces of legislation and the emphasis placed on the importance of the rule of law.

However, Mr Brett said he was disappointed by the lack of decision in relation to the division of business between Supreme and County Courts.

“That is obviously a major matter that will need to be addressed.”

Shadow State Attorney-General Andrew McIntosh labelled the document “all rhetoric and no substance”, but welcomed initiatives to expand the Koori Court and diversion programs.

For a copy of the Justice Statement, go to http://www.justice.vic.gov.au.

The Justice Statement’s 25 initiatives

The Justice Statement contains 25 initiatives that state Attorney-General Rob Hulls has vowed to undertake during the next decade.

Following are the initiatives listed in the Justice Statement.

1. Review and replace the Crimes Act 1958, Evidence Act 1958 and Bail Act 1997 by 2007.

2. Review criminal jurisdictional thresholds between Magistrates’, County and Supreme Courts.

3. Evaluate recent initiatives to streamline criminal procedure, focusing on opportunities for committal procedure reform and procedure to encourage early guilty pleas.

4. Continue to implement recommendations from the Sentencing Review 2002 and investigate the introduction of express statutory discounts for guilty pleas.

5. Review the infringement process to ensure its continuing fairness, while providing an effective procedure for recovering unpaid fines.

6. Develop agreed models for managing court resources.

7. Improve accessibility, especially for those in regional Victoria, from multicultural and indigenous backgrounds or with a disability.

8. Develop new systems to improve service, efficiency and coordination between jurisdictions. A new technology platform will expand the opportunities for online service, improved case management, in-court services and information.

9. Modernise the skills and qualifications for court staff.

10. Develop a strategic facilities plan for the construction of future courthouses.

11. Review the Coroner’s Act 1985 to improve the Coroner’s Court’s capacity to contribute to accident prevention and safety strategies.

12. Implement the reforms to the legal profession’s regulatory structure announced in 2003 to provide a simpler and more efficient and accountable regulatory structure.

13. Pass a new Legal Profession Act to implement the recommendations of the National Legal Profession Project.

14. Review the current requirements for admission to practice and post-admission training schemes, such as mandatory continuing legal education.

15. Establish a Gateways to Justice project that provides an integrated approach to dispute resolution policy and services, and delivers a range of court-based and non-court based dispute resolution processes.

16. Raise the Magistrates’ Court civil jurisdictionto $100,000 and examine the current thresholds between the Supreme and County Courts, and between the Magistrates’ Court and VCAT in relation to small civil claims.

17. Work with the courts to overhaul the civil rules of procedure to reduce court delays, streamline litigation processes and improve consistency between jurisdictions.

18. Establish a process of discussion and consultation with the Victorian community on how human rights and obligations can best be promoted and protected in Victoria. This includes the examination of options such as a charter of human rights and responsibilities, new approaches to citizenship and to modernising anti-discrimination law, reducing systematic discrimination and strategies to promote additional change.

19. Supporting the needs of victims of crime and assisting their recovery from these offences, particularly women and children who are victims of family violence and sexual assault. Examine the need for a Victims’ Charter.

20. A report from the Victorian Law Reform Commission on the law of sexual assault will be released shortly and will provide a platform for significantly improving the experience of women and child victims in the court system.

21. Implement the commitment to increase the age limit of the Children’s Court from 17 years to 18 years.

22. Develop and implement a framework for problem-solving approaches in the Magistrates’ Court to consistently address the underlying causes of offending behaviour by people from groups who are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The Koori Court program will be extended to Mildura and Gippsland and a Koori Children’s Court will be established.

23. Adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to address the offending behaviours of people who may be mentally ill, have an intellectual disability, are dependent on drugs or who are homeless, and are caught up in a cycle of offending and punishment.

24. Develop a model for the provision of legal information, advice and assistance in civil matters, as part of the Gateways to Justice project, to make sure these services are more accessible to the community, particularly to disadvantaged groups.

25. Develop new online information resources and explore new ways to provide for civil representation.

Jason Silverii

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