President's Message - District Court criminal trials


Members, and particularly those practising in the District Court criminal jurisdiction, will have seen the final Practice Note 22 published yesterday.

The Chief Judge of the District Court, His Honour Justice Price AO, met with representatives of the legal profession on Tuesday morning, including from the Bar, Law Society, both Commonwealth and State Directors of Public Prosecution, Public Defenders, Legal Aid and the ALS, in relation to PN 22.

COVID-19 has thrown up many challenges for the administration of justice. The entire legal profession — lawyers, courts, tribunals and various government departments — have co-operated to enable the system to continue in line with current health guidelines. Those guidelines have meant that jury trials across the State have been vacated. When jury trials run again, capacity is still likely to be limited, given health guidelines providing for appropriate distancing indoors and insufficient appropriate court and jury rooms being available to meet the current and mounting backlog.

As members will be acutely aware, the unavoidable delays in jury trials being heard are having effects beyond our own practices: many accused remain on remand awaiting trial, prosecutors are being pressed to bring matters on and, of course, justice delayed is justice denied.

Members must therefore make every effort to ensure that, when jury trials return, they are conducted efficiently, including by taking steps now to limit the loss of court time when that occurs. This can be facilitated by members carefully considering whether any pre-trial issues can be resolved by the Court, at or before hearings when trial dates are vacated due to COVID-19, and bringing those issues to the Court’s attention. Judges are available, the courts are available, and our members can work. I understand that many of you are already undertaking this essential work. Obviously, circumstances can change - yet do not delay, contact the Registry and re-list for argument.

We need to be working together with the Courts to make sure that, as best we can, we limit the loss of hours, let alone days, when juries trials are ready to resume, by making sure of the hearing and determining of pre-trial issues that can be run now. Regrettably, this has not always occurred in the recent past in circumstances where the Court has been told at readiness hearings there are no pre trial issues and then time is lost hearing them when the trial begins.

Hence, I want to stress the need for full consideration of whether there are any pre-trial issues for the court's resolution when matters are set down for trial, at or before readiness hearings and when trial dates are vacated due to COVID-19, and, if so, brought to the Court’s attention. Failure to do so risks not simply judicial wrath but professional conduct complaints.

Success to date during the COVID-19 pandemic has been achieved by the active cooperation of the profession. We will continue to do so by following PN 22 in spirit as well as in substance.

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