News: The Department of Justice has been unable to comply with the Right to Information Act on backlog

Nick Clark, The Examiner, 10 October 2023

Lawyers for allegedly dangerous criminals cite Tasmania’s chronic Supreme Court backlog and delay as a critical reason their clients should receive bail and be released from custody.

The Supreme Court statewide backlog stood at 673 on June 30, 2022.

But the Department of Justice is shy about the most recent figures to June 30, 2023.

A man charged with possessing a Russian military-grade rifle and ammunition was recently granted bail in the Supreme Court in Launceston.

The man allegedly possessed an SKS 7.62mm assault rifle and a loaded Colt .45 pistol in the glovebox of his vehicle. There were also 1,500 rounds of ammunition seized in a raid.

The man’s lawyer said the delay was a live issue, and she had clients in custody since 2021 who had not made it to trial.

“I don’t see how it could be listed before the start of next year, and I would be surprised if it would be before the start of next year.” the lawyer said.

“Your Honour would be aware of the delay and the number of [pending] trials.”

In a separate bail application of a man charged with recklessly discharging a firearm, it was suggested by lawyer Hannah Goss that the case was unlikely to be heard for “at least two years and 3-4 years more likely in this case”.

In a recent application a lawyer argued for a man on a new 2023 charge who was previously charged with the same offence in 2020.

“[He] is unlikely to receive a trial [on the new charge] before 2025 on the basis that no trial date has been set on matters that go back to 2020,” the lawyer said.

Lawyers cite delay in most bail applications on indictable matters which must be heard in the Supreme Court.

The absence of a Supreme Court judge, the departure of an acting judge and retirement of Associate judge Stephen Holt appears to have exacerbated the delay.

In Launceston, the 12-week trial in relation to the murder of Shane Barker from April to June 2023 absorbed considerable prosecution and defence resources.

In 2022, the plight of two people sentenced for the manslaughter of Burnie man Bobby William Medcraft highlighted the potential for injustice.

Five defendants spent two and half years on remand after being charged with the alleged murder on March 29, 2020.

One of them, Geoffrey James Deverell, 37, was found not guilty of both murder and manslaughter and was released within hours of the jury verdict.

In 2021, Robert Gerard was on Supreme Court bail concerning a serious wounding charge when he murdered Michael Hawkes at Reedy Marsh.

The last five trials in the Supreme Court in Launceston related to aged matters, including causing grievous bodily harm in 2020, wounding in 2021, aggravated armed robbery and setting fire to 500 hectares of bush in 2019, an assault in 2019 and a rape count from 2019.

Guilty pleas came in relation to crimes in 2020 involving drug trafficking and an aggravated armed robbery in 2021.

Justice Robert Pearce asked crown prosecutors about likely trials for two co-accused men in relation to 2021 and 2020 cases on Thursday.

“In reality it will not be until February 2024,” prosecutor Peter Sherriff said of a 2021 allegation.

Prosecutor Felicity Radin said a trial for a man in relation to a 2020 matter was “intended for the first half of next year’.

The Examiner asked the Department of Justice on July 25 for the backlog, including a regional breakdown of pending cases and any measures to reduce the backlog. No definitive information was forthcoming.

On August 1, 2023, The Examiner sought the backlog details via the Right to Information Act.

However, despite a statutory requirement to furnish a response within twenty business days, the department has yet to respond.

The Department’s RTI team’s most recent communication to The Examiner on September 13 said: “We are currently progressing your request for information. I hope to have a decision for you soon, although I [sic] unable to provide an exact date.”

In his 2021-22 annual report Chief Justice Alan Blow said: “The Courts greatest challenge is the backlog of first instance criminal cases.”.

The number of criminal cases finalised fell from 495 to 445 in 2021-22.

In his 2019-20 annual report Director of Public Prosecutions Daryl Coates SC summarised the threat to justice posed by the criminal backlog.

“It should be remembered in respect to every case that is awaiting determination there are victims, witnesses, and accused in a highly stressful situation,” he said.

“One of the consequences of cases being delayed is that witnesses become fatigued and unavailable or their memories fade.”

He said the backlog could not be adequately addressed without a considerable increase to ongoing funding to his office.

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