Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Criminal Procedure Amendment (Summary Proceedings for Indictable Offences) Bill 2016

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Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 11:22 :38 ): The Criminal Procedure Amendment (Summary Proceedings for Indictable Offences) Bill 2016 provides further reform by this Government of criminal procedure to ensure more quick and cost-effective criminal justice in this State. As the Attorney General pointed out in her second reading speech, the bill complements other reforms by the Government. In December 2015 the Government announced a $20 million package for the provision of 250 extra sitting weeks for the District Court over the 18 months from January 2016 to June 2017, as well as funding to increase the number of judges in the District Court by two judges, with two additional public defenders to be located in Port Macquarie‑Tamworth to work across an area including Armidale, Port Macquarie, Tamworth and Taree. Just last month the budget delivered a further $39 million package, which included the provision of three additional District Court judges. In a short period, this Government has appointed five new judges to the District Court to eat into, particularly, the criminal trial backlog in that court.

This legislation complements those initiatives by providing for four break and enter offences to be, at the election of the prosecution, heard in the Local Court. The Local Court is the engine room of criminal justice in this State. In its criminal jurisdiction the Local Court does not determine factual findings with the assistance of a jury. The District Court, by contrast, usually exercises its criminal jurisdiction through trial by jury. A feature of trial by jury is that when certain legal points are raised during a trial, the jury is required to leave the courtroom while the barristers and the judge debate points of law. Through their inherent nature, jury trials are therefore much slower and more expensive than a magistrate-alone hearing in the Local Court. While the jury has a central and important role in our criminal justice system, from the establishment of the rule of law in our State a jury trial has not been considered necessary for lesser criminal offences. Over the past 30 years or so in this State there has been a trend to allow for less serious offences to be heard in the Local Court in respect of crimes that had previously been heard by a judge and jury in the District Court. This legislation is a continuation of that long trend in the administration of our criminal justice system.

The starting point for the bill that is before the House is a report from 2011 entitled "An examination of the sentencing powers of the Local Court in NSW". In that report the Sentencing Council recommended a general review of the Crimes Act be undertaken to determine whether any additional offences should be included in the tables, being the second category of offences—that is, table 1 offences within the Criminal Procedure Act. Pursuant to that review, consultation was undertaken to determine whether the four offences, which are the subject of the bill, should be put in the tables to the Criminal Procedure Act. That is what has now been brought before the House.

It is important to note that the bill, in the provision of the four offences within the table, has been widely supported. It has been supported by the Department of Justice, the NSW Police Force, the Sentencing Council, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Legal Aid, public defenders, the Chief Judge of the District Court, the Chief Magistrate of the Local Court, the Bar Association and the Law Society. All the relevant stakeholders within the criminal justice system in this State support the inclusion of these four offences in the table. Importantly, the prosecutor has an election to make as to whether the matter will be heard in the Local Court or the District Court. Importantly, that election is only in respect of the less serious offences. These offences are property offences relating to break and enter, the sum involved cannot exceed $60,000, there can be no violence associated with the commission of the offences, and the only aggravating factor is that the crime was committed in the company of another person or persons.

As the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research [BOCSAR] statistics for 2012-2015 show, the offenders convicted of these offences were usually sentenced to sentences less than the jurisdictional limit of the Local Court. It is important to note that in no sense does the bill represent a relaxation of the penalties that will be meted out by courts in relation to these offences. It represents simply an administrative expediency in terms of ensuring quicker and less expensive justice in our State. In that regard it is important to note that the Productivity Commission report on government services in 2015 recognised that the New South Wales Local Court was the most efficient court in the nation, with the lowest backlog and the highest percentage of cases finalised within 12 months.

This legislation will take four crimes that are heard in the District Court and put them into a much more efficient court. Importantly, complementary to this legislation, the Government has announced the funding of an additional one magistrate and two prosecutors to deal with the increase in the workload of the Local Court by reason of this bill. All of those economic and systemic benefits are important, but they are perhaps not as important as the human impact of this bill upon people involved in the criminal justice system. I am speaking particularly about the victims of and witnesses to crime. Taking these offences out of the District Court and putting them into the Local Court will ensure that court proceedings will hang over the heads of victims of and witnesses to crime for a shorter time than would otherwise be the case if they were heard in the District Court. It also means that the victims and witnesses will not have to give evidence twice, once in a committal proceeding leading up to a District Court trial and second at a District Court trial.

This legislation also provides other benefits. By relieving the pressure on District Court trials, more serious offences in the District Court will come to trial earlier. If the accused in those cases is on bail, he or she will be on bail for a shorter time because the trial will come to the District Court more quickly. There are benefits for accused persons who are ultimately acquitted in cases coming on more quickly for trial in our criminal justice system. As the Attorney General mentioned in her second reading speech, there is also a benefit of rehabilitation for convicted and sentenced offenders. Access to rehabilitation services will be more abundant if Local Court trials come on more quickly than District Court trials. There are many human benefits in this legislation beyond the financial, systemic and procedural benefits. For all of those reasons, I support the bill before the House. It is another example of the Government trying to improve the criminal justice system, which benefits the community at large.