Budget cuts threaten court bottleneck

WA could lose its title of having the fastest justice in Australia if a rumoured 6 per cent cut to justice funding in next week’s State budget creates even bigger delays to obtaining trial dates for commercial disputes.

To get to court, litigants already have to wait at least seven months from the time the parties involved certify that they are ready to go to trial, without including the months or years of preparation prior to that.

“In a system that is already stretched to its limits, I’d be interested to know where there was any capacity for savings,” WA Law Society president Ken Martin said.

“In the Family Court context funding is of particular concern, as the system was already identified as being overburdened and under-resourced by one magistrate and one judge. This was before the recent changes to laws relating to de-facto couples, which has dumped a new workload on it.”

In something of a catch-22 situation, these lengthening delays between a dispute’s occurrence and a hearing date have been blamed by some legal sources for a greater incidence of late settlements which, in turn, places further burdens on court time.

And, with budget cuts threatening to aggravate problems in an already clogged up court system, the suggestion is that the existing seven to nine-month delay in getting a hearing could extend this waiting period, prompting more late settlements.

Legal sources say improvements in the system, such as case management and compulsory listing conferences, are being nullified by these delays in obtaining trial dates.

Speculation has pointed to a $19 million cut in the budget as the Treasurer Eric Ripper looks to rein in Government spending.

Few in the legal system doubt the existing delay in getting to trial in civil matters in the District and Supreme Courts is likely to blow out if funding is cut from what is already regarded as an overloaded system.

The story is similar in the criminal courts. District Court Listings report that you can expect a delay of eight months if you go straight to a full hearing. If you choose to have a preliminary hearing, it has to go through the Court of Petty Sessions and will take longer.

While unaware of any Government funding proposals, Principal Registrar of the District Court, Michael Harding, remembers the “good old days” in the early to mid 1990s when he was able to provide trial dates within a couple of months.

Mr Harding believes an imminent trial places greater pressure on parties to reach a resolution, in an out of court settlement.

“I am disappointed at the high degree of late settlements,” he said.

“I rather suspect that the longer waiting periods for trial dates is reflected in the increase in late settlements.”

Although there are numerous devices built into the system to discourage late settlements, they are still an unwelcome feature of WA’s adversarial court system.

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