The NSW Law Society says local courts are facing unprecedented pressure, as a shortfall in available magistrates to preside over the bulk of the state’s legal matters reaches a tipping point.
The lawyers group is calling for the NSW government to commit more human resources to the state’s busiest courts, arguing that the maintenance of the physical court infrastructure in the 2021 state budget is not enough.
“The Law Society has raised concerns about the resourcing inadequacies in our local courts with the NSW Attorney General and we intend to continue to politely but firmly call on the government for more magistrates,” NSW Law Society president Juliana Warner said.
Warner described the local court as the ‘backbone’ of the NSW legal system, where 96% of all criminal prosecutions and 90% of all civil litigation in the state are dealt with. She believes that an additional 10 magistrates are needed to meet current local and coroner’s court demands, as well as new measures to ensure that retiring magistrates are replaced in a timely fashion.
“The local court clears some 78,000 civil cases and more than 346,000 criminal cases a year,” Warner said.
“A shortfall in magistrates increases the workload on our judiciary and court staff, which inevitably leads to pressured court sittings – this in turn impacts victims, witnesses, the accused and members of the public, particularly in rural areas.”
The Law Society also pointed to the appointment of only two extra magistrates in NSW between 2019 and 2020, saying the boost (to bring the total number of magistrates to 141) did not reflect the significant increase in cases they were required to clear.
The resourcing strain is keenly felt in regional areas, Warner added, with a local magistrate in the Central West covering both local courts in Orange and Mudgee.
Case volume data from 2019 shows that the Orange local court finalised 2852 criminal matters the Mudgee local court finalised 1228. On top of this workload, the court dealt with 2806 new criminal cases in Orange and 1265 in Mudgee in 2019.
“It can take up to six months to get a hearing date – with some listings for hearings now being set for 2022,” Warner said.
“Currently, the magistrate sits on average 12 days a month in Orange and eight days a month in Mudgee.”
Ms Warner, who is a Sydney based partner of top-tier law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, commenced her tenure as NSW Law Society president in January. She plans on doing a regional tour of the state to engage with regional solicitors, and promote the good work that they are undertaking in the community.
Part of the tour also includes advocating for more resources for courts and tribunals.
“The Law Society has raised concerns about the resourcing inadequacies in our local courts with the Attorney General and we intend to continue to politely but firmly call on the government for more magistrates,” Warner said.
Warner met with local solicitors from the Central Western Law Society on Thursday, and attended a regional technology and innovation forum hosted by the Law Society the following day. Warner said the event, known as the Future of Law and Innovation in the Legal Profession (FLIP) conference, would help lawyers innovate by showing them how to offer limited scope (or ‘unbundled’) legal services to clients.
“The FLIP Conference will provide regional solicitors with practical, hands-on advice about how they can integrate this type of innovation into their practice for the benefit of their existing clients and increase access to justice for those who are not seeking legal advice when they should,” Warner said.