Top magistrate warns of social cost of ‘short-sighted’ cuts

Local Court Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson cautions against “short-sighted” budget cuts. Photo: Louie Douvis Rural justice hit by cuts to magistrate numbers: Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson. Photo: Brendan Esposito

The chief magistrate of the NSW Local Court has warned against the “short-sighted reduction” in the number of judges, and foreshadowed funding cuts could hit country areas especially hard.

Judge Graeme Henson, who was been chief magistrate of the court for almost a decade, said the state government had cut six magistrate positions since 2013 and another two were expected in the year ahead.

“The Local Court of NSW already has the lowest ratio of magistrates to population in the Commonwealth,” Judge Henson said in a strongly-worded foreword to the Local Court’s 2014 Annual Review.

He warned the court may have “no alternative” than to reduce attendance in some of the smaller courts in country locations.

“Should that come to pass, the social cost in providing a lesser service may well exceed the purported cost savings to government through a short-sighted reduction in judicial numbers,” he said.

Judge Henson’s comments come as the District Court buckles under the pressure of a growing caseload and fewer judges. The NSW Law Reform Commission said in a report released this year that criminal proceedings had “major systemic issues” and were “in, or approaching, a state of crisis”.

The NSW Bar Association has called for more judges to be appointed to the District Court to deal with the backlog.

In the Local Court, Judge Henson said the criminal caseload increased by 14,000 matters in the past year despite a reported drop in the crime rate.

Shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch said: “The strength of the Chief Magistrate’s comments show how very serious the position is in the Local Court.

“Since 2011 the government has consistently starved the Local Courts of resources and caused the closure of courts and the reductions of services in others.”

Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton conceded there were “particular challenges facing parts of the justice system, including in the Local Court” but the government was building or upgrading courts across NSW including in regional areas such as Wagga Wagga.

She said the court “continues to lead the country in several key performance indicates as measured by the Productivity Commission”.

“For example, the commission’s Report on Government Services [in] 2014 shows that NSW is the best performing jurisdiction for Local Court criminal backlogs for the seventh consecutive year.”

Ms Upton said the challenges facing the justice system “have not emerged overnight” and reflected the fact that “the justice system has not kept pace with change over a long period of time”.

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