Page 256 - Week 01 - Thursday, 17 February 2011

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Statistical evidence about the results of judge-alone trials was lacking, and meaningful data is difficult to obtain. Consequently, I asked my department to examine any available evidence about the rate of elections for trial by judge alone in the ACT, to compare that evidence with the experience of other jurisdictions and to gather further information on the types of matters where elections were being made.

The Department of Justice and Community Safety initiated a review of all Supreme Court criminal trials conducted over a four-year period, ending on 30 June 2008. The review revealed some interesting findings. The ACT appears to have a high rate of defendants electing for trial by judge alone. The ACT has the highest proportion of matters proceeding by judge-alone trials in Australia at 56 per cent, compared with the next closest jurisdiction, the South Australian Supreme Court, at 15 per cent and then Western Australia at 2.7 per cent. The South Australian statistics are particularly interesting because the ACT legislation was modelled on the South Australian law and the provisions are directly comparable.

There appear to be high rates of elections for trial by judge alone in matters involving allegations of a sexual nature, including allegations relating to child pornography, and allegations involving the death of a person, murder and manslaughter in particular. There was some evidence of elections being made inappropriately after the identity of the trial judge was known, but these were restricted to cases where fresh indictments or amendments to indictments were made on or close to the date that the trial was listed for hearing. This made it difficult to be certain of the factors influencing the election.

The conviction rate for judge-alone trials for murder during the period—this is a four-year period ending on 30 June 2008—was zero per cent. The conviction rate for judge-alone trials for sexual matters during the period was nine per cent, and the conviction rate for all other judge-alone trials during the period was 47 per cent. The community would be very interested in these figures. The results of the review support the proposal for legislative reform to curtail the disproportionately high number of elections for trial by judge alone that are being made in the ACT. The trends shown in the audit period have continued into 2009 and 2010.

There is strong community support for these amendments. Territorians expect that those charged with the most serious of offences are assessed and judged by a jury of their peers. This ensures that our community standards and values continue to be an integral element of our justice system.

I acknowledge the concerns of some in the legal profession that these reforms are unnecessary. However, as I have previously mentioned, the trends identified in the audit require the government to act, and I believe that the wider community supports this initiative.

Similarly, the concern has been raised that the proposed reforms to judge-alone trials may result in delays with matters being finalised by the Supreme Court. However, decisions that are made by a jury are on the spot and will reduce the delays associated with the production of reasons, which currently occurs with trials by judge alone.

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