WAITING times for criminal trials in the Hunter have blown out by several months, with the chief judge of the district court responding by allocating an unprecedented number of judges for the first weeks of 2013.
Accused people committed for trial between now and Christmas face the prospect of having to wait until the second-half of next year, with available dates before the mid-year recess filling rapidly.
The situation is just as desperate at East Maitland, which hears cases covering the Central Hunter and Upper Hunter.
Justice Reg Blanch, the Chief Judge of the NSW District Court, described the backlog as ‘‘unsatisfactory’’ and pointed to a 32per cent increase in the number of trials registered in the Hunter for the first 10 months of this year compared with 2011.
The district court’s benchmark is to have 90cent of criminal trials started within four months of being committed from the local court.
Justice Blanch has responded by allocating three judges dedicated to criminal cases for the first three weeks of 2013 followed by two for the following two weeks, while another three-week sitting has been allocated to East Maitland in March.
While it is common for a second judge to hear criminal cases alongside Newcastle Judge Peter Maiden, it is rare for three, especially at the same time that East Maitland District Court is sitting.
‘‘The additional resources are necessary due to the increased number of criminal trials registered in the region,’’ a spokeswoman for Justice Blanch said.
‘‘For example, 90 criminal trials were registered at Newcastle for the first 10 months of this year, compared with 68 for 2011.’’
Newcastle Bar Association president Peter Harper welcomed the added sittings.
‘‘The Newcastle Bar Association has been concerned for some time with the criminal case loads at both Newcastle and East Maitland District Courts,’’ Mr Harper said.
‘‘Those case loads, including trials, sentences and appeals, at East Maitland in particular, has been far too great for one judge to dispose of in two- or three-week sittings.
‘‘It is no one’s interests to have cases repeatedly adjourned or given dates several months into the new year.’’
The backlog began accumulating last year with a 10per cent increase in the number of trials being registered, at the same time a judge fell ill