Australia: NSW local court is in crisis

Last Updated: 18 September 2019
Article by Sonia Hickey

The annual review of the local court, which deals with more than 90 per cent of criminal matters in the state, shows a massive surge in the number of cases being dealt with by the court since 2013 – about 70,000 cases over the six year period.

Last year, almost 340,000 criminal matters came before the Local Court, an increase of almost 8500 on the previous year. Almost the same number of cases were finalised, but the number of magistrates on the bench has not increased enough to cope with the rise.

The current tally of magistrates is 137 in our state, compared with 133 six years ago.

The result is a heavier workload for everyone working in the local court system, but particularly the magistrates who have an enormous amount of responsibility as they decide the fates of those who come before them.

On a sitting day, a magistrate spends about six hours in court as well as time outside of court undertaking other work, such as preparing judgments.

No respite in sight

New South Wales Chief Magistrate, Judge Graeme Henson, has long been critical of the state Government's inadequate funding for local courts.

The judge now says the situation has now reached crisis point, with Magistrates under pressure to work longer hours to ensure cases are dealt with "either on the day they come before the court or within a short period thereafter".

In country areas, magistrates have the added responsibility of coronial work ,and Judge Henson says he is acutely aware of the demand on those magistrates and the risk of isolation on their mental health.

Much of the extra workload stems from changes to jurisdiction which mean the Local Court is used as an "alternative forum" to the District Court in some criminal cases, including the supply of less than a commercial quantity of drugs which previously had to be finalised in a higher court.

The Judge says there has been a "discernible rise" in lengthier and more complex criminal matters being heard in the Local Court.

Between a rock and a hard place

Many judicial officers are under "enormous stress" because of these heavy workloads, and the effects upon the mental health of magistrates and judges be exacerbated by the vicarious trauma they encounter from presiding over distressing matters.

Research has consistently found that lawyers are in the highest risk category for mental health issues, and recent studies suggest that the judiciary is especially at risk.

While one obvious solution is to reduce sitting times to ensure that magistrates aren't continually under pressure, this would simply mean further delays in an already over-worked system.

While the NSW Government has made a budget commitment of $200 million, to be spent upgrading courthouses at Coffs Harbour, Newcastle, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga, as well as building the new Coroners Court complex at Lidcombe, and includes an allowance for the appointment of four extra magistrates, Judge Henson says this is not enough.

Bandaid won't stop the bleeding

The New South Wales judiciary is not alone. The suicide of well-respected Victorian Magistrate Stephen Myall last year highlighted similar problems in the southern state.

Results of an Australian study released earlier this year, and published in the Australian Law Journal show that there is a growing problem with stress.

Carly Schrever surveyed 152 judges and magistrates from five jurisdictions. More than 90% of those she interviewed identified workload as their major source of stress and shows no sign of abating. Judges identified pressures such as increasing numbers of self-represented parties, which complicates the role of judicial officers in the court, increases in case volumes, increasing case complexities as well as ill-informed media coverage and the increasing pace of legislative change, as making their roles more and more taxing.

Other bodies of research reveal a problem across the whole of the legal profession, with solicitors and barristers also having to deal with difficult and stressful situations as well as working long hours with little respite, creating issues with mental illness that continue to be insufficiently addressed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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