The backlog has caused concerns that accused people, victims and witnesses face waits of up to two years before trial, but the courts believe a case management program will iron out legal issues more efficiently and help reduce the number of outstanding cases.
The program, implemented as the courts adapted to the new order, encourages prosecutors and defence lawyers to nominate cases to go before a judge if the lawyers are close to resolving areas of dispute.
A judge’s ruling would then determine how a trial proceeds, or whether an accused person might instead plead guilty, which would save weeks of court time.
There is also greater scope for people awaiting trial to seek sentence indication hearings – where a judge indicates a penalty for a guilty plea – and for some witnesses to have evidence recorded in advance.
County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd was confident the program would resolve some cases and reduce the number of trials.
“I’d like to think so. The model makes sense,” he said.
“We don’t have enough data yet, but we’ll collect it. It’s my expectation that it will have an impact on the number of outstanding trials, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
“Experience shows there’s always a large cohort of trials that ultimately resolve just before the jury trial, in the weeks before or on the day.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said there was a commitment from “across the whole criminal sector” to “bring matters to a conclusion as quickly as possible in the current circumstances”.
Judge Kidd said sourcing more judges and court rooms was a question for the state government.
There is optimism in the legal industry that jury trials will return before the fourth quarter of the year, so long as the space for jurors complies with health guidelines.
The Magistrates Court expects committal hearings – which determine whether an accused goes to trial in a higher court – to resume later this year. During the pandemic magistrates have prioritised custody matters, such as bail applications, and family violence cases.
Social distancing rules have meant only those with business at court can attend.
Magistrates and judges have been among those to stay away, working from home on judgments and ruling on compensation for victims of crime. Court of Appeal cases and civil trials, which can be heard without juries, have continued.
In criminal matters, video links and other technology have become widely used, including plea hearings and sentences. The Magistrates Court, for example, now averages 200 video links daily, up from 120 a day last year.
However, technology failings across all courts have caused frustration.
Lawyers have told The Age video links are unreliable and have put a strain on the system, and links to speak privately with clients in prison can also be cut short. One lawyer believed it was time the courts reverted to in-person appearances.
“You’ve got five people in the room, all spaced out, so it’s a safe environment,” he said.
But the senior judges insist faulty links, patchy audio and other glitches haven’t prevented the courts functioning.
“I’m absolutely confident that justice hasn’t been compromised,” Judge Hannan said.
“The components of justice have remained exactly the same: we apply the law, we make decisions. It’s simply the mode in which justice is delivered is different.
“While it’s true a video link will drop out, we just dial again.”
Justice Ferguson said some judges had embraced the digital shift so much they were keen to permanently use video appearances in administrative hearings, and email judgments.
“This has been a real opportunity to look at different ways of doing things that may be more effective,” Justice Ferguson said.
Adam Cooper joined The Age in 2011 after a decade with AAP. Email or tweet Adam with your news tips.