Proposed Changes to Jurisdiction in the Magistrates, District and Supreme Courts
Changes that could have a big effect on the efficiency of the court system are currently being discussed in the Western Australian Parliament. These proposed changes follow the recent changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act, which raised the maximum penalty of possession of more than 28grams of methylamphetamine, with intent to sell or supply, to life imprisonment and allowed these types of charges to fall within the jurisdiction of the District Court of Western Australian.
With a Magistrates’ Court that is already struggling with the sheer volume of matters that appear in a list on a day to day basis and the long waiting period to reach trial, the question is whether the proposed changes will have a positive effect on the efficiency of the court system.
The Court Jurisdiction Legislation Amendment Bill 20171, introduced to the Parliament on 18 October 2017, proposes to redistribute aspects of the jurisdiction of the Supreme, District and Magistrates Courts of Western Australia.
The Supreme Court traditionally has the sole jurisdiction to hear charges where the maximum penalty available is life imprisonment. The maximum penalty of life imprisonment is the most serious of penalties and is only available on a small number of charges, mostly relating to the destruction of human life, but also includes criminal damage by fire and armed robbery.
The first change that the Bill proposes is for the District Court of Western Australia to be given the jurisdiction to deal with armed robberies and criminal damage by fire, or arson.
The amendments would, in effect, make the Supreme Court of Western Australia, the ‘homicide court’, dealing with only homicide-type offences in the first instance and would bring Western Australia into line with the other States.
Practically, this makes sense. The District Court of Western Australia already deals with extremely serious offending, offending that can often be far more serious than instances of armed robberies or criminal damage by fire on the lower end of the scale of seriousness, and, thus has the capability and expertise to deal with these matters appropriately, both at trial and in sentencing.
In turn, the jurisdiction of the Magistrates Court of Western Australia is proposed to be increased by amending the monetary limit in relation to offences of burglary, fraud, stealing and fraudulent dealing with a judgment debtor from $10,000 to $50,000. The rationale behind the proposal is that this figure has not been changed in over 20 years and is in need of amendment.
These are “either-way” offences, which means that they can be dealt with, either, on indictment in the District Court or by the Magistrates Court. Under the proposed amendments, these charges will remain “either-way” and, therefore, if the seriousness of the alleged offending warrants it, the matters can be committed to the District Court to be dealt with.
The final change proposed is to introduce a summary conviction penalty to the charge of making Threats to Kill, which would make this charge an either-way charge and allow the matter to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court. The rationale behind this change is that a charge of Threat to Kill will regularly accompany a range of other charges that may be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, such as breach of violence restraining order or common assault. The amendment will simply allow a charge of Threat to Kill to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, where it is appropriate to do so.
Again, these are practical amendments to the jurisdiction of the courts that reflect trends in offending and allow for flexibility in jurisdiction that reflects the varying circumstances in which offences can be committed.
What needs to be considered and closely monitored if the proposed changes do come into effect, is whether the District Court and Magistrates Court have the resources and capability to take on additional workloads that the expansion of their jurisdictions will bring. In turn, this workload pressure is likely to have an impact on the public perception of justice being done.
In the 2017 Annual Review of the District Court of Western Australia2, his Honour, Chief Judge Kevin Sleight, noted that it was of particular concern that waiting times for sentencing were now up to 6 months (24 weeks). This was an increase of over 73% in the past 5 years. Whilst the number of trials in the District Court remained approximately the same across 2016 and 27017, there was a substantial increase of 36.7% from the previous year in the number of trials longer than 6 days.
The Magistrates Court, both in Perth and in the other metropolitan courts, is busier than ever. With court lists in excess of 80 matters and waiting times for trials soaring to 9-12 months in some metropolitan courts, the workload of the Magistrates is already being pushed to its limits, as was noted by Magistrate Deen Potter in his recent article in the Law Society of Western Australia’s Brief Magazine.3
The Government is aware of the impact that the proposed changes may have an impact on the workload of the courts and are committed to ensuring that the justice system is adequately resourced. In an attempt to prevent these issues, the Government has been replacing retiring members of the bench and appointing Magistrates and Judges to the courts.4
At the end of 2017, two judicial appointments to the District Court were made and there have been eight separate announcements of appointments to judicial office across the Magistrates, District and Supreme Courts in the first six months of 2018. With murmurs of additional changes to the Magistrates Court’s jurisdiction in relation to offences committed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the impact of these proposed changes on the workload of the court and the impact that this will have on the community perception of the criminal justice system needs to be scrutinised over the next few years.
1. [Court Jurisdiction Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 (WA).]↩
2. [District Court of Western Australia, Annual Review 2017. Available at https://www.districtcourt.wa.gov.au/_files/2017_WADC_AnnualReview%20-%20Published.pdf]↩
3. [Deen Potter, “Magistrates Courts in Western Australia, Part One – Navigating Conveyor Belt Justice in the General Lists”, (2018) 45(6) Brief Magazine6.]↩
4. [Western Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Council, 13 June 2018, 3294-95 (Sue Ellery).]↩