July 22, 2012
Committal hearings are rightly under review
JUSTICE delayed is justice denied, someone said once. It may have been Gladstone or William Penn, but whatever its origins, the phrase has become both legal maxim and cliche because it is so true. Victims of crime and those accused of crime equally deserve access to a speedy trial and, hopefully, resolution. Lately, the maxim has become a rallying call for those who believe an overburdened, complex, ponderous and evermore expensive judicial system denies that justice and needs significant, perhaps root-and-branch reform.
In Victoria the element of the court system most open to such reform is that of committal hearings, the first in a two-step process of taking a criminal matter to a verdict. Here, all criminal prosecutions destined for the County or Supreme Courts first come before a magistrate who holds a committal hearing to assess whether there is sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. Committals are meant to be a filter, ensuring that, on the evidence, cases with little chance of success are not sent before a jury. That is not to say that directors of public prosecutions cannot choose to take matters directly to court.
Former DPP, Jeremy Rapke QC, was calling for the abolition of committals five years ago, arguing that they were a waste of both time and money and clogged up the court system. They were no longer properly serving the filtering process for which they were originally created and were costly, inefficient and time-wasting. Abolishing committals would eliminate much of the delay between when an accused was charged and when the trial was finally heard. Now, it seems, the state government may be leaning towards a similar view.
As The Sunday Age reveals today, the government is considering scrapping committal hearings in what would be one of the most significant overhauls of our judicial system. Attorney-General Robert Clark has been meeting with the courts, the DPP and Legal Aid to discuss possible reforms to the committal system. Already critics are suggesting that if it goes as far as abolition, the results would be ''disastrous''. But even they agree that the committal hearing process needs a remake. That is also The Sunday Age's view: As Mr Clark says, ''some form of… preliminary hearing or scrutiny of serious criminal charges needs to be available'', but committals have become too loosely controlled, duplicate much of what must happen at the trial stage, run for too long and, in many cases, turn into something of a lawyers' picnic.
''Coulda, woulda, shoulda'' is also a cliche, if a far less elegant one. But the difference between the first two words is at the heart of what could be the most effective reform to committals. At present magistrates must be satisfied that there is reasonable prospect that a properly instructed jury could convict a charged person. If, as Chief Magistrate Ian Gray suggests, that word were replaced with would likely convict, fewer cases with little chance of success would be sent to trial. We would also support tightening and controlling cross-examination in the magistrates courts. Too often these days witnesses - and too often there are too many of those - are cross-examined on matters where there is little dispute about their evidence or that are covered in their statements.
In magistrates courts new duties now take up increasing time, such as family violence intervention orders, which have grown 48 per cent in the last five years. Committal hearings remain an important part of the justice safety net. They screen out cases where the evidence is not strong enough and allow accused people to know what they are facing at trial and formulate a position as to whether to plead guilty or not guilty. But the process needs to be streamlined and unclogged. And our message to Mr Clark is: Without delay.