Page 3652 - Week 10 - Tuesday, 26 August 2008

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there is an objective need for change to improve the efficiency of the system and maintain public confidence in our court processes. I believe that this bill is the best option to meet that need and have taken the difficult decision to introduce these changes.

The bill reforms the criminal justice system to improve efficiency, ensuring that the court’s time is used more effectively. The changes to the committal process so that a committal will take place on the basis of written evidence, unless the court is satisfied that cross-examination is strictly necessary, will streamline the process, reduce stress on witnesses and speed up the delivery of justice.

To rebut some of the comments made by Dr Foskey, it is the court’s decision as to whether or not cross-examination is warranted. The change is: it is no longer a de facto right. But there is still the protection that the judicial officer can determine whether or not further evidence needs to be tested by cross-examination at committal. I think we have to have confidence in our magistrates to make those judgements. They are the people with the expertise and the experience to make those assessments. This places the power firmly in their hands.

The increase in the jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court and the increase in sentencing power of magistrates reflect their professionalism and ability to appropriately deal with a wide range of criminal matters. It also ensures that the longer and more expensive processes of the Supreme Court, such as jury trials, are kept for the most serious offences in our community, further enhancing the efficiency of the courts and therefore the delivery of justice to the Canberra community.

The bill also reinforces the government’s commitment to human rights principles by amending existing provisions for hearings in the absence of the defendant, to ensure that this only happens if the defendant makes a fully informed, intelligent and voluntary decision to let the court hear a matter in the defendant’s absence. I am aware that the opposition will be seeking to remove this section on the basis that the test will be too difficult to meet and that the court issuing warrants for the arrest of defendants, instead of hearing matters in their absence, will clog up the system.

In response to that, I would note that the protection of a defendant’s rights should extend to all criminal matters and all members of our community, no matter how serious or minor the charges are against them. Evolving changes to the law and to the manner in which many minor matters are dealt with by infringement notice mean that there are not a significant number of criminal charges that are heard ex parte at the moment. This reform will therefore result in only a slight increase in the number of warrants for arrests issued for police to enforce, in the event that a defendant does not appear in court to answer the charges against them. It will certainly not be clogging up the system but it will be ensuring that the rights of all members of the community are properly protected.

The bill introduces a scale of costs to guide the award of costs in summary criminal matters and this provides certainty. It encourages defence practitioners to improve the management of costs and charges and will reduce the current, sometimes large, discrepancies that exist in the award of costs.

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