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Call to break old habits

News

After hearing millions of cases in its 170-year history, the Victorian Magistrates’ Court will dramatically overhaul the way it does business.

Chief Magistrate Ian Gray has warned that a new initiative aimed at slashing delays and improving efficiency in his courts will only work with the full collaborative support of defence counsel and prosecutors.

Mr Gray said the key to accelerating case flow would be more effective work early in a case, with the incentive of wasting less time in courthouses later.

According to the planning template, lawyers can expect 9.30am starts on busier mornings, quick matters to be dealt with first and staggered listing start times throughout the day to deliver greater time certainty for lawyers.

Under the blueprint, contained in New Directions for the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria 2008-2011, a more user-friendly online communication system will be phased in over the next three years.

The new system promises to allow practitioners to book preferred court times, indicate the length of matters and request any extra resources they may require – without leaving their desks.

Mr Gray said that the summary court had been historically under-funded, considering its massive caseload and in comparison with other courts, but that he has been encouraged by recent budgetary injections.

These include $22 million announced in the 2008 state Budget for two new magistrates and additional security personnel and weapons screening, to be phased in over the next four years.

However, he said the New Directions push was more about trying different methods of “doing justice more cost-effectively”.

The Magistrates’ Court dealt with more than 200,000 cases last financial year, including finalising 156,337 criminal matters and 2500 committal proceedings.

It also issued 25,335 intervention orders and handled 17, 448 Children’s Court cases.

“In some ways the plans are reinventions of old wheels in the unremitting perennial search for ways to deal with high case loads more efficiently,” Mr Gray said.

“At the same time there is increasing investment in some aspects of the Court’s work which require more intensive case management, such as in the Drug Court.

“The solicitors and prosecutors need to lead the way in earlier resolution of cases, rather than later. We must aim for a minimum of lost and wasted time, particularly in the mornings, due to a lack of readiness,” Mr Gray said.

He highlighted this lack of readiness as the biggest issue for the Court.

“The discussions between the parties should not be left to the last minute. Good coordination and efficient case handling depends on the Court getting early, reliable and credible information from practitioners and information on what trajectory the case is likely to take.”

In mid-August Court CEO, Charlotte Stockwell, visited at least half of the Court’s state-wide 53 locations to gather feedback from current staff about the vision and how best to implement it.

The New Directions plan was created by the Magistrates’ Court 2015 Project – a partnership between the Justice Department and the Court – after consultation with staff, the judiciary and other justice community stakeholders.

Officers also researched how efficiently other summary courts operated both in Australia and overseas.

There is not expected to be any initial impact on case backlog, but indications are that it could be progressively cleared.

Attorney-General Rob Hulls said the new model aimed to “modernise and improve services” by streamlining the existing system and offering more support to judiciary, justice partners and solicitors.

He said the Court would hopefully become more user-friendly for plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses.

“The Court has a proud tradition of serving the Victorian public and a long history of doing things differently and better. The New Directions document sets out initiatives the Court will undertake to meet its vision of being Australia’s leading court of summary jurisdiction by 2015,” he said.

Mr Hulls also promised better support for victims of crime and a new focus on the needs of Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse clients and other special needs groups.

Most of the other facets of New Directions focus on internal administrative changes and the framework should add to changes stemming from Mr Hulls’ first Justice Statement, such as therapeutic jurisprudence and problem-solving courts.

Justice Statement II is expected to be released in the near future.

LIV CEO Mike Brett Young said that any initiative designed to speed-up often cumbersome court processes would be welcomed by the legal fraternity.

To view the New Directions policy, see the Justice Department website http://www.justice.vic.gov.au.

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