Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2018

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Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 10:56 :06 ): As Neil Young once said, rust never sleeps. The process of improving our justice system never sleeps either. I commend the Attorney General, who is a highly experienced member of the bar and a Senior Counsel, for bringing forward the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 and improving justice in this State. I will speak about two aspects of the bill, being the table offence reforms and the Land and Environment Court reforms. The purpose of the table offence amendments in schedules 1.5 and 1.7 is to allow four strictly indictable offences which currently must be heard in the District Court to be heard in the Local Court.

One of the most concerning aspects of our court process is the time it takes for cases to be finalised in court. We are all familiar with the phrase that justice delayed is justice denied. Lengthy court processes can compound the stress and trauma that victims experience while waiting for their cases to be resolved. It can also be stressful for witnesses who are expected to recall the details of their evidence and for the accused person waiting for a verdict. Police officers are also disadvantaged by delay. They may have moved to other locales and it can be inefficient and costly to bring them back to the court nearest to the location of the offence. For a long time the legal system has recognised that delays in hearings generally reduce the quality of justice because memories diminish and documents can sometimes be destroyed.

The bill aims to reduce court delays for all participants in the criminal justice system by ensuring that criminal offences are dealt with in the most appropriate court. In New South Wales criminal cases are dealt with in the Local Court, District Court or Supreme Court depending on the type of offence. Offences characterised as summary offences are the least serious criminal matters and are dealt with by the Local Court, which has a maximum sentencing jurisdiction of two years imprisonment.

Indictable offences may be dealt with in the Local Court, except where an election is made for the matter to be heard in the District Court. Offences in this category are known as "table offences "because they are listed in two tables in schedule 1 to the Criminal Procedure Act 1986. For table 1 offences, an election to the District Court may be made by either the prosecutor or the defendant. For table 2 offences, which are less serious, an election may be made only by the prosecutor. Strictly indictable offences must be dealt with in either the District Court or the Supreme Court. These courts have jury trials and larger sentencing jurisdictions than the Local Court and typically those trials take longer to complete because they are held before a judge and a jury.

In its 2011 report entitled "An Examination of Sentencing Powers of the Local Court in NSW", the NSW Sentencing Council recommended a review be undertaken of the Crimes Act 1900 to consider whether any additional offences should be included in the tables. That review was undertaken by the Department of Justice in consultation with a range of stakeholders, including the NSW Police Force, NSW Sentencing Council, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Legal Aid New South Wales, the Public Defenders, Chief Judge of the District Court, Chief Magistrate of the Local Court, New South Wales Bar Association and Law Society of New South Wales. Having considered the recommendations of the review, in 2016 the Government moved four strictly indictable aggravated break and enter offences into the category of table offences. These amendments will now move a further four offences identified by the review as suitable to be categorised as table offences: robbery simpliciter, section 94, Crimes Act 1900; pervert the course of justice, section 319, Crimes Act 1900; supply a prohibited drug, but only where the quantity involved is more than the indictable quantity and less than the commercial quantity, section 25 (1), Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985; and recklessly deal with proceeds of crime, where the value involved is over $5,000, section 193B (3) Crimes Act 1900.

The offence of recklessly dealing with proceeds of crime will also be included in table 2, where the monetary value involved is $5,000 or less. For this offence, only the prosecutor can elect whether the matter can be heard in the District Court. Importantly, it is not anticipated that there will be an impact on sentence lengths as a result of these amendments. While the Local Court has a two-year limit, it is important to be aware that most of the existing table offences that can already be heard in the Local Court are serious criminal offences, with many carrying a maximum of 10 years imprisonment or more. Further, statistics from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that the majority of sentences currently imposed by the District Court for the four new table offences already fall within the Local Court's two-year sentencing scope. More than 90 per cent of finalised charges for the four offences resulted in sentences of less than two years in 2016. This trend was consistent from 2012 to 2016.

It must also be remembered that just because an offence may be heard in the Local Court, this does not mean that it must be heard in the Local Court. Any serious charges involving one of the new table offences can still be dealt with in the District Court where an election from either the prosecution or defence is made. The making of an election by the prosecution is governed by a protocol between the NSW Police Force and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Where New South Wales Police Prosecutors consider that the facts of a matter are serious and cannot be dealt with in the Local Court's two-year sentencing limit, the matter is referred to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions under the protocol. Cooperation between the NSW Police Force and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions ensures that less serious matters are dealt with efficiently and cost effectively in the Local Court, while more serious matters continue to be dealt with in the District Court. While it is not anticipated that there will be an impact on the length of sentences, the Department of Justice will conduct a review two years after commencement to evaluate the impact of the reform on sentences and the impact of the workload on the Local Court and the District Court and criminal justice agencies.

That review will also evaluate those matters for the four break and enter indictable offences that were transferred to the tables in November 2016. The benefits of recategorising these offences as table offences will flow to all participants in the criminal justice system. I mentioned previously that the lives of victims and witnesses are significantly impacted by the stress and uncertainty that results from waiting for matters to be resolved in the District Court. In 2016, the median number of days for a case to be finalised in the District Court was 713.5, compared with only 187 in the Local Court. I repeat: delay also affects the reliability of witness testimony. Having matters dealt with more quickly in the Local Court will also have benefits for accused persons as they will receive faster justice through an acquittal or finding of guilt. The amendments will also contribute to alleviating the pressure on the criminal justice system, including the District Court criminal trial backlog. Moving the four offences to the tables is estimated to reduce the criminal trial backlog by approximately 100 trial registrations per annum, and will shift approximately 400 matters from the District Court to the Local Court. This will create extra capacity in the District Court to focus on more serious criminal offending. In this way, the reform complements other recent government efforts towards reducing the District Court trial backlog.

I turn to the Land and Environment Court amendments. Schedule 1.9 to the Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 will amend the Land and Environment Court Act 1979 to prescribe certain matters currently prescribed as class 3 miscellaneous matters as class 4 civil enforcement matters. They will include matters concerning the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, Dangerous Goods (Road and Rail Transport) Act 2008 and Water Management Act 2000. This is a minor amendment that was requested by the Land and Environment Court to ensure that the court can apply the most appropriate practices and procedures to its jurisdiction. This amendment is an example of how important the miscellaneous justice legislation amendment bills are to keeping our system of justice in New South Wales fast, fair and efficient. I again complement the Attorney General on his fine work. I commend the bill to the House