Lismore court house
Lismore court house

District courts succumb to caseload glut

DISTRICT Courts are taking almost 100 days longer to finish trials than a few years ago as new cases arrive faster than old ones are dealt with.

New Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures show an average case in 2007 took 276 days from beginning to completion.

Last year the wait had stretched to 369 days - a 34% increase.

Country court registries at Dubbo, Wagga Wagga and Lismore - which takes in District Courts in Armidale, Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Inverell - had a 44% blow-out in their pending trial caseload from 2007 to 2014.

BOCSAR director Dr Don Weatherburn said the glut began in 2010 when the number of new cases began to exceed the number of finished trials.

He said more people were being arrested for serious offences, more cases were going to trial and trials were taking longer to complete.

"One option (to reduce the pending caseload) would be to find ways of encouraging earlier guilty pleas, since this would reduce the trial workload of the District Criminal Court," Dr Weatherburn said.

"Another option is to look for offences that are currently being dealt with in the District Court but which attract penalties within the sentencing discretion of the Local Court or, alternatively, to increase the sentencing powers of the Local Court so that it can deal with more serious offences.

"A third option would be to expand the capacity of the NSW District Court, by appointing more judges, defence lawyers and prosecutors."

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The District Court's annual review reveals it had 69 judges in 2007, compared to a current judiciary of only 63 members.

Shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch said the ranks needed to be bolstered.

"The longer it takes for a trial to be heard, the less reliable will be the evidence of a witness and the longer will be the anguish of a victim," he said.

"Lengthy delays undermine the standard of justice."

Labor has also called for the reinstatement of a case conferencing pilot program abolished when the Coalition came into power in 2011, aimed at getting guilty pleas entered early "rather than on the footsteps of the court".

"This saves substantial court time. The government abolished the scheme to save $1.5 million," Mr Lynch said.

The report came just days after NSW Chief Justice Graeme Henson revealed Local Courts were still managing, only just, to meet time standards despite the loss of six magistrates in two years and an ever-growing caseload.