EDITORIAL: Courts under pressure

JUSTICE Reg Blanch’s decision to allocate more sitting dates for Newcastle and East Maitland district courts will be welcomed by most, especially the many defendants, victims and witnesses waiting for their cases to be heard.

But there will be many employed by other agencies who work in the district courts who will also be anxious about the extra workload.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will have to allocate Crown prosecutors, Legal Aid and the Aboriginal Legal Service will need to have solicitors at the ready while sheriffs, transcribers and other court staff will be required when the judges take their seats on the bench next year.

These are departments that are already facing tighter budgets and the DPP in particular has struggled at times to meet its commitments.

It was only three years ago that the former DPP, Nicholas Cowdery QC, was unable to provide Crown prosecutors for sittings at East Maitland.

Funding was found at the 11th hour for private counsel to be briefed and the trials proceeded.

In recent times the new director, Lloyd Babb SC, has chosen to brief private counsel as well as giving more solicitors from his office the opportunity to lead trials.

The Department of Justice and Attorney-General is being asked to do more with less – like other government departments – resulting in reporters, who prepare transcripts of proceedings, and court officers, who handle documents and call witnesses, no longer considered essential at all times.

Adding to these burdens, and making the chief judge’s decision even more remarkable, is that the allocation of extra sittings has come at a time when the states are playing host to scores of people-smuggling trials dumped on them by the Commonwealth.

But when all is considered it is important not to forget what is at stake.

Victims of crime quite rightly deserve to have their cases dealt with as soon as possible to minimise their suffering.

Defendants in custody, whether guilty or not, are entitled to be exonerated and freed or convicted and sentenced efficiently.

The late Judge Ralph Coolahan, frustrated at the caseload he faced, once uttered the words ‘‘no help no sit’’ and the Newcastle Bar Association has long been concerned about the workload for visiting judges at East Maitland.

The additional sittings in Newcastle and East Maitland should be welcomed by all and every effort should be made to utilise every precious minute of them.

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