IT is perhaps unsurprising that it was one of the most highly publicised trials in Newcastle District Court in recent memory that exposed what lawyers who ply their trade there have known for years; that delays in getting a trial had reached epic proportions.
After the jury in former NRL star Jarryd Hayne's rape trial were deadlocked and it came time for him to get a date for a re-trial, there was a discussion in Newcastle District Court on December 16 last year that highlighted in simple terms just how bad the delays had become.
Judge Tim Gartelmann, SC, one of two permanent judges in Newcastle, said the Newcastle court diary had been impacted by COVID-19 and if the case was to stay in Newcastle it would be given a date of "late, as in very late, 2021" with "a good prospect it might tip into being the following year".
Or, Hayne's solicitor was told, if the two-week trial was moved to Sydney it could be given a date in the first half of 2021.
Hayne's solicitor applied to have the case moved to Sydney and it has a trial date of March 8, 2021, some nine months or more before it could have been heard in Newcastle.
And, sure, one could argue Sydney's Downing Centre has more judges and more courtrooms available than in Newcastle.
But just how bad are the delays in getting a trial in Newcastle District Court?
And how much were they made worse by COVID-19?
According to the most recent data from the NSW District Court, the number of outstanding trials in Newcastle had increased by 18 per cent as of November, 2020, compared to 12 months earlier, a moderate increase given the three-month suspension of jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest figures show there are currently 149 people awaiting trial before Newcastle District Court, up from 126 in 2019.
The number of offenders waiting to be sentenced increased slightly over the same period from 60 to 67, a curious rise given the break from jury trials theoretically provided more time to deliver sentences.
With 149 matters already in the diary in the district court, those still before the local court are already looking at getting a trial date well into 2022 if not 2023.
Across NSW, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the wait time between arrest and finalisation of a trial in the District Court during 2019 and 2020 was more than 720 days. That number has remained steady over the past few years, but is up from about 650 days from the same period five years ago. But there is hope on the horizon.
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In the week of March 15, 2021, Newcastle District Court will host a "super callover", a process where generally more than 100 trials are funneled into a list, negotiations take place, deals are done and dozens of trials are resolved with guilty pleas, significantly reducing the backlog.
In the past "super callovers" in Newcastle have managed to clear more than 50 trials, creating space for more trials to fill the void.
But regardless of the impact the pandemic had and despite the welcome relief "super callovers" bring, lawyers who operate in the district court say more needs to be done to permanently address the problem and reduce the wait time for those awaiting trial on remand and in the community.
In interviews with more than a dozen solicitors and barristers, the overwhelming majority said Newcastle needed a third permanent judge to reduce the workload for Judge Roy Ellis and Judge Gartlemann, who work tirelessly and preside over dozens of trials and hundreds of sentences each year.
"The delay awaiting trial in Newcastle is considerable," solicitor Drew Hamilton, of Newcastle firm Hamilton Janke Lawyers, said. "Not to mention re-trials. "And it permeates all aspects of the criminal justice system - overcrowding remand prison populations, availability of evidence and witnesses, the experience for victims and their families as well as the community's confidence and perception of the criminal justice system. "The COVID pandemic didn't help a system already under pressure. "The concept of the super callover releases the pressure valve somewhat but not the extent it needs to."
Solicitor Mark Ramsland, of Ramsland Laidler Solicitors in Newcastle, said Newcastle District Court was at "stretching point".
"Even before COVID-19 there were already unacceptable delays in Newcastle of about eight to 10 months from committal to trial," Mr Ramsland said. "In my opinion, the delays are due to Newcastle needing a third permanent judge."
He said the physical limitations of the courthouse, opened in 2016, as well as the DPP's attitude towards opposing judge-alone trials also added to the delay.
In December, 2018, Attorney General Mark Speakman announced a $150 million package to "deliver swifter justice and reduce pressure on the court".
The package, to be delivered over four years, included $63 million for new judges, sheriff's officers, court staff, jury costs and security upgrades at courthouses.
The additional judges took the total number of permanent judges in NSW to 75.
Of the seven new appointees, some have made guest stints in Newcastle District Court to oversee trials or deliver sentences, but the court is yet to receive any additional permanent judges under the package.
A spokeswoman said the NSW District Court would continue to roster four judges at Newcastle in 2021, as they did in 2020.
"At Newcastle courthouse there are four courtrooms allocated for District Court matters including trials," the spokeswoman said. "There is also a civil court with no jury area which can be used for pre-recording evidence, but otherwise the court is operating at capacity for trials (4 judges, 4 courtrooms). "The provision of 7 new judges in 2018 has helped with this resourcing. "The court is doing all that is practically possible to manage high volumes of matters brought before the court including longer and more complex trials, and responding to party readiness in case list scheduling. As noted the court has been impacted by COVID, yet the caseloads have only been moderately affected, which speaks to efforts to minimise disruptions during an exceptional time. "The practice of moving priority trials to Sydney as appropriate, on application from parties, shows the court is committed to working on case management across locations. As mentioned, we also have the super callover coming up in March."
Regardless, lawyers say the continuity that comes with having a third or even fourth permanent judge in Newcastle, as opposed to judges doing guest stints for weeks at a time, would be invaluable in reducing the delay in the long-term.