Defendants to front up in court study

  • Chester Borrows

Minister for Courts Chester Borrows this week launched a pilot scheme that will place some defendants at the centre of criminal court proceedings to better involve them in the process.

The two-year pilot will be held at the North Shore District Court and will explore how the defendant's level of understanding and engagement is affected by bringing them to centre of proceedings, rather than in a dock to the side of the courtroom.

“During almost 30 years in the court system as a policeman, police prosecutor and defence lawyer, all too often I saw defendants leaving the court asking the same question – ‘what just happened?’,” says Mr Borrows.

“Placing defendants in the dock, frequently towards the back of the courtroom, makes them a spectator in their own case. This trial will place them front and centre, standing with their lawyers, giving them no choice but to be part of the conversation.

“This is especially important at the sentencing stage when in involves the critical information about what they have done, how that has impacted on others, what is going to be done to them as punishment, and what they are going to have to do to make it right.”

The pilot is supported by Chief District Court Judge Doogue and has been established with help from Judge Dawson and Judge Hinton at the North Shore District Court.

The pilot will cover any offence that would typically be heard in a Judges’ summary list, which covers all offences above the community magistrates’ jurisdiction and below the High Court jurisdiction. These offences include driving charges, excess breath alcohol and theft. The trial will also include sentencing and status hearings. Anyone already in custody will remain in the dock, as well as anyone the Judge considers a security threat.

Already, some defendants sit with their lawyers in some District Court jury trials for less serious charges.

In the United States and Australia the defendant typically sits at one of two benches at the front of the courtroom beside their lawyer. However, there has been little research into the effect of the defendant’s position during court proceedings on justice outcomes.

“This pilot gives us the opportunity to fill in the gaps in what we know. It will test the theory that putting the defendant in front of the judge and next to their lawyer, where they can better communicate with each other, will help with their engagement in the court process and their understanding of what is happening,” Mr Borrows says.

The pilot will be measures by a range of factors including recidivism rates.