Criminals pleading guilty much earlier in new kind of court

A new kind of court will help clear case backlogs by discouraging last-minute guilty pleas, a NSW trial suggests.

But the NSW Bar Association has said adopting the approach would not do much to fix an underfunded system “near breaking point”.

From March 2015, District Court judge Ian McClintock presided over a “rolling list” court where dedicated teams of prosecution and defence lawyers appeared before him alone, rather than diverting to other judges after adjournments.

Don Weatherburn, director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, said after nearly 30 years of mooted solutions to court delays, the trial had shown “spectacular” results.

The new court system allowed for senior lawyers to negotiate sooner, saving time and money, proponents say. Photo: James Davies

“I’ve never seen anything they have done that produces effects as dramatic as this,” Mr Weatherburn said. “It shows you can actually change the system.”

The crime research bureau measured the success of the new court by randomly allocating Legal Aid cases between the regular lists and Judge McClintock’s rolling list.

Criminals who pleaded guilty early in either were entitled to sentence reductions of up to 25 per cent.

In the rolling list court, 58 per cent of cases ended in a guilty plea before trial, compared with 22 per cent in the regular courts.

Mr Weatherburn said the difference came down to one of two factors, or some combination of the two.

First, the “docket” system of appearing before a single judge throughout a case meant “instantly the inducement to seek an adjournment to get before some other judge is gone”.

Second, placing senior lawyers on both sides in dedicated teams allowed for negotiations over charges and trial issues to happen much earlier, he said.

Rolling list cases also progressed from committal hearings to trials 40 per cent sooner and were finalised more quickly.

Legal Aid solicitor Sally McLaughlin, one of the early participants, said the court allowed for an immediate dialogue and “real trust” with public prosecutors.

“There’s an efficiency in knowing your counterpart well, knowing how they operate,” Ms McLaughlin said.

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said it was “extremely pleased” with the results.

Attorney-General Mark Speakman said while the rolling list court was an initiative of Chief Judge Derek Price, this year the government would introduce statewide reforms requiring early negotiations between senior prosecutors and defence lawyers.

“This will include appointing senior counsel sooner and providing continuity in defence and prosecution, leading to more open communication and earlier plea negotiations,” Mr Speakman said.

But NSW Bar Association president Arthur Moses, SC, said “with the criminal justice system near breaking point due to delays, the District Court needs more than a new case management approach to reduce the backlog”.

Mr Moses said the government needed to appoint more judges and provide more funding for Legal Aid and senior lawyers to deal with the “tsunami of cases”.

While the rolling list court produced more guilty pleas overall, researchers found the increase was not significant enough to prove anything. The new system did not lead to shorter, more focused trials, as had been predicted from early results.

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