Call for action on legal case backlog

Call for action on legal case backlog

New documents have exposed continuing delays in the ACT Supreme Court, with 46 unresolved cases waiting six months or more for a judge's final decision.

Two judges and the outgoing Supreme Court master had taken a year-and-a-half or more to write and deliver decisions on 14 cases by June 30, according to a list of the court's reserved judgments obtained by Fairfax Media.

Justice Richard Refshauge.

Justice Richard Refshauge.Credit:Richard Briggs

The longest delay has now stretched to almost five years, involving a complex civil case, on which Justice Richard Refshauge reserved judgment in October 2008.

Both Chief Justice Terence Higgins and Attorney-General Simon Corbell have described the delays as unacceptable, while Victims of Crime Commissioner John Hinchey has spoken of the ''serious adverse effects'' they are having on victims.


Mr Corbell said the government views delays longer than six months as too long, and said he was ''acutely aware'' of the impact of judgment delays on the community.

But Mr Corbell said he understood there had been a significant reduction of reserved judgments waiting more than three months in the past financial year.

Justice Refshauge was given time away from the bench in February to work through a backlog of unresolved cases, and Chief Justice Higgins said he had made ''considerable progress'' since then.

But, by June 30, Justice Refshauge still had 15 judgments that he had reserved more than six months ago, including eight decisions that had already taken more than two years.

The former Supreme Court master David Harper, who retired and stopped hearing new cases in May, had 24 civil matters that had waited for a judgment for six months or more by June 30.

Justice Hilary Penfold also had seven judgments that had taken more than six months.

The court's other two permanent judges, Chief Justice Higgins and Justice John Burns, did not have any reserved judgments waiting for longer than six months.

Mr Hinchey said the delays in the court, particularly pre-trial, were traumatising and causing significant anxiety for victims, particularly of sexual offences.

"I think it's a lack of respect to victims of crime, that their interests are not considered in delays that can be avoided if people are more organised," Mr Hinchey said.

"We already know what needs to be done to fix some of the delays that can be fixed - we just need the will to do it."

Chief Justice Higgins said the delays reflected the increased workload of the court over the period.

Delays in the ACT Supreme Court have been the cause of much frustration for victims, lawyers, defendants, and parties tied up in civil proceedings.

The ACT government sought to cut through the backlog last year, with a 12-week blitz that saw the court take on an intense workload to clear outstanding cases.

A docket system was also introduced, which Chief Justice Higgins believes will help judges to better manage their own lists.

The recent expansion of the jurisdiction of the ACT Magistrates Court has allowed it to deal with a wider range of cases, helping to lighten the Supreme Court's workload.

The legal fraternity - including the Law Society and the ACT Bar Association - have repeatedly called for the introduction of a fifth judge.

Those calls have been dismissed by the government, and the attorney-general said the system required efficient case management, not extra judicial officers.

''The resources of the court are a public resource,'' Mr Corbell said.

''It is incumbent on the government to see that they are used as efficiently as possible, as is expected of any other aspect of public administration.

''While I am acutely aware of the impact [the] delay in judgments has across the community, I am satisfied that the government is providing all appropriate support and taking all appropriate action to assist in resolving this issue.''


Mr Hinchey agreed with the government, saying a fifth judge was not the answer to the court's woes.

He said the court had a lot to learn from last year's successful blitz, and added that, while the appointment of another judge might ''appease some'', addressing the underlying case management issues should be the first step for the court.

Most Viewed in National