Judge Michael Burnett was the Central Region District Court Judge based in Rockhampton from October 2014 until early September 2020.
Judge Michael Burnett was the Central Region District Court Judge based in Rockhampton from October 2014 until early September 2020.

Massive CQ court backlog revealed in alarming new report

Rockhampton’s District Court had a challenging year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, recording the state’s lowest clearance rates for regional courts for criminal matters.

The busy court had a clearance rate of just 69.8 per cent in the 2019/2020 period for criminal matters, with 341 new cases lodged and 238 cleared.

It is a far cry from the 2016-17 financial year clearance rate of 103.6 per cent, meaning there was a 33.8 per cent drop in Rockhampton district court matters finalised.

This is in comparison to the state’s other regional District Courts clearance rates – Beenleigh (99.5 per cent), Cairns (89 per cent), Ipswich (96.4 per cent), Maroochydore (80.6 per cent), Southport (91.1 per cent) and Townsville (88.1 per cent).

Southport had the highest number of newly lodged cases at 775, followed by Cairns at 672 and Townsville 622.

Rockhampton’s district court judge also serves as the Central Region judge, presiding over matters in Emerald and Gladstone.

During the COVID-19 period where jury trials were postponed, there were discussions about Emerald and Gladstone district court trials possibly needing to be run in Rockhampton due to the smaller courthouses not having the facilities to cater for the COVID-19 social distancing requirements for juries and other people involved in the trials.

The need for a second district court judge in Rockhampton was raised in 2018 after the 2016-17 report showed a backlog in cases – 11.4 per cent of cases had been waiting more than 12 months to be finalised, and 2.9 per cent had been waiting more than two years.

The backlog in the 2019-2020 report is 14 per cent waiting more than 12 months and three per cent waiting more than two years.

The second judge suggestion came after revelations in August 2018 about lengthy delays in cases still waiting to be sent from Rockhampton Magistrates Court to the district or supreme court for sentencing or trials.

Read more here: Is Rockhampton in line for a new District judge?

Chief Judge Brian Devereaux stated, in the 2019-2020 annual report released Monday, the District Courts had many challenges during COVID-19, including jury trials put on hold from March to July and the increase of judge-only trials taking place to reduce the backlog.

“The COVID-19 virus provided the greatest single challenge to the operation of the court during the 2019-20 year,” he said.

“It is to the enormous credit of the court and its judges that the business of the court in all of it several jurisdictions continued during this difficult period.

“The one exception was in the area of jury trials where for a period of several months safety considerations prohibited the assembly of jury panels.

“One consequence of this was a significant increase in the number of applications for judge alone trails.

“The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the inadequacies in the court’s IT systems.

“This is a matter which I have raised in previous reports but which has continued to be the subject of neglect.

“The need for a modern, fast and reliable IT system is now greater than it has ever been.

“The COVID crisis also highlighted another matter of ongoing neglect, namely, the lack of an electronic filing system such as exists in other Australian jurisdictions.

“It is inevitable given the many issues created by COVID-19 that backlogs have developed with the court’s criminal lists.

“If this backlog is to be addressed across the state, it is essential that any judicial vacancies should be filled without delay.

“To do otherwise creates great disruption to the court’s lists and serves only to place additional pressures on a court in which judicial resources are already overstretched.

“Given the influence of COVID-19 there are difficulties inherent in making statistical comparisons with the court’s performance in previous years. A statewide clearance rate of 97.9 per cent should be regarded as an outstanding achievement in the circumstances.”

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