When trials resume in the Burnie Supreme Court in October, the first trial may be of a man facing four-year-old charges.
Because of the age of the charges, and the significance of his alleged crimes, progressing the case is generally considered a priority.
But Coastal lawyers believe the issues which have fueled such delays are not necessarily coronavirus nor crime rates, but that policies providing resources to most branches of justice are just not vote-winners for the state government.
Supreme Court trials were canned in March this year at the outset of the pandemic, and for good reason.
But that added four months to the already-heavy case backlogs in Hobart and Launceston when trials resumed there in July.
And for those attempting to access justice on indictable criminal matters in the state’s North-West, the pandemic will add at least seven months to their proceedings.
But seven months is not four years.
COVID-19 has had a not-insignificant impact on the way Tasmanians access justice, but the backlog was already apparent.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Alan Blow said in November last year that on average people were spending two years in the system from the date they were charged or arrested until their matters were finalised.
According to government figures, there were 167 cases before the Burnie Supreme Court awaiting progress at August 11 of this year.
About 10 per cent of those, or 17, were more than two-years-old while almost 60 per cent were less than twelve-months-old.
The data shows that the situation was similar in Launceston and Hobart, where 16 per cent and 11 per cent of cases were more than two-years-old, respectively.
Overall, 84, or 12 per cent, of the 691 cases before the state’s Supreme Courts were more than two-years-old as of August 11.
The significance of the delays is not something the general public is concerned about, and therefore not something politicians will seriously pursue, Burnie lawyer Alex McKenzie says.
Mr McKenzie is Senior Associate at McLean McKenzie and Topfer, which has an office a block away from the courthouse, and he said that in the half-a-decade he has been practicing on the Coast, the delays have been a constant.
“With the lack of public money around now, as we enter a recession, I don’t see resourcing of criminal justice being made a priority,” Mr McKenzie said.
“The issue of delay has been well known for some time and while COVID has absolutely caused delay, the question is whether resourcing was an issue before the pandemic.”
And that is not to say the state government and the opposition party have not committed funds to the issue – a $15 million commitment to rebuild the Burnie court complex was a key feature of Labor’s 2018 election campaign and one which the Liberals pinched shortly after.
That was recently thrown out in favour of an industry-favoured “greenfield” site – the University of Tasmania’s West Mooreville Road campus.
The Minister for Justice Elise Archer has said that is part of a $35 million “broad package” the state is “pursuing… to address the court’s workload”.
You don’t see anyone lobbying for funding of Legal Aid.
And although the court relocation announcement was met with loud criticism from residents, the industry has been largely supportive.
Devonport-based Greg Richardson, one of Tasmania’s longest serving defence lawyers, was among those supporting the move.
Mr Richardson has been practicing law in the state for 46 years, and said a central tenet of his profession is that “justice delayed is justice denied”.
However, he said it is not solely a lack of resourcing in the justice system which has caused delays – but the recent increased resourcing of Tasmania Police.
Mr Richardson said police are the one aspect of the state’s justice system which has been enthusiastically funded and resourced by the state government.
And, he said, that has left the state’s public legal resources including Legal Aid, prosecution, the courts and the prisons without the ability to progress people through the system in a timely manner.
“Over the last five years or so the government has poured massive amounts of money and resources into Tasmania Police,” Mr Richardson said.
We make no apologies for increasing Tasmania Police resources in order to keep Tasmanians safe.
He said that although the crime rate itself has gone down in Tasmania, police are arresting and charging more people than the system can handle.
“What is the point of pouring resources into Tasmania police so they can just charge people?
“The system requires charging, processing, trying and finalisation.
“There is no point charging an extra 20 people if you can’t get them through the f—ing system.”
Mr Richardson echoed Mr McKenzie’s comments as to why the government has not allocated resources beyond Tasmania Police.
“It is not politically popular.
“You don’t see anyone lobbying for funding of Legal Aid.”
Mr McKenzie said that the public attitude to justice is similar to attitudes towards the health system.
“Unless you are interacting with the justice system, whether criminal or civil, it just passes you by,” he said.
When asked about Tasmania Police resourcing, Ms Archer said the state government was unapologetic.
“We make no apologies for increasing Tasmania Police resources in order to keep Tasmanians safe,” Ms Archer said.
She also said the state has this year committed $614,000 of extra funding for legal assistance, and $344,000 the Department of Public Prosecutions.
This week, Ms Archer introduced a bill to parliament which is aimed at further reducing the backlogs in the state’s Supreme courts.
That bill is a part of the “broad package”, which also includes the relocation of the Burnie court complex.
Mr Richardson said the disconnect between the public who do and do not seek justice was particularly well illustrated by the Burnie court decision as well as the northern prison development decision.
“We’ve needed a new court in Burnie for f—ing years and we’re finally going to get one, but what happens? The locals speak out against it.”
He said the same thing happened at Westbury.
“People are motivated not by the greater good, but by self-interest.”