As part of its new website, the Supreme Court of Victoria has launched launched a weblog. The first substantive post is from Justice Jack Forrest of the Trial Division, who predicts a number of changes in court procedure in coming years. Of note is the emphasis on digital documents: “an online filing system called ‘RedCrest’ … is being rolled out in the Commercial Court. … Hopefully, it will reduce the size not only of solicitors’ paper files, but also of briefs provided to counsel. Furthermore, it will make life much easier for court staff, counsel and solicitors alike by allowing them to search electronic databases quickly and effectively”. In addition, Justice Forrest remarks: “Any case involving five or more folders of court documents will be required to be run as an e-trial—at least for those cases before me.” Other predicted changes will focus on narrowing the issues in dispute as soon as possible: “The days of trials proceeding by attrition are gone. Practitioners should expect the courts to take a grim view of unnecessarily adversarial conduct.”
The British Home Secretary, Theresa May, is calling for a new criminal offence of “domestic abuse”. Her call has sparked a debate about whether non-physical bullying should be criminalised, with some victims in favour of the proposal, and others saying it should not be a crime. Here in Victoria, the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) already includes a broad definition of “family violence”, which includes emotional and psychological abuse, economic abuse, and “in any other way control[ling] or dominat[ing] the family member and caus[ing] that family member to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family member or another person”. A victim can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a Family Violence Intervention Order, and breaching the order is a criminal offence carrying a term of imprisonment.
In a major change to Victoria’s sentencing system, “From 1 September 2014, Victorian courts can no longer impose suspended sentences. This sentencing option was progressively abolished in 2013 and 2014 by the Sentencing Amendment (Suspended Sentences and Other Matters) Act 2013.” The Government argues that suspended sentences “allow offenders to walk free from court without any supervision”, and suggests that the new Community Corrections Orders should be used as an alternative. However, Sentencing Advisory Council statistics show that “as use of suspended sentences continued to decline [during the phase-out period], so did CCOs—while orders for imprisonment and fines continued to increase”. The SAC is calling for further research to determine why judges are not using CCOs in the way the Government had predicted. Some lawyers argue the removal of sentencing options leads to unjust outcomes by reducing the ability to tailor sentences to the individual case.
The Chairman of the Adult Parole Board, Bill Gillard QC, says that it is now harder to be granted parole in Victoria, and one substantial cause is the lack of prisoners’ access to rehabilitation programs: “It is Corrections that must make sure that the person is ready for parole. Corrections Victoria has the obligation to put the prisoner in the right position to apply for parole.” This appears to be a vicious cycle, as the lack of access to parole increases prison populations, which, according to Smart Justice, puts further strain on prison services: “There’s a current overcrowding crisis in Victorian jails and the impact of that is it’s denying a chance of proper rehabilitation before prisoners are released from jail.” Corrections Victoria says it has significantly increased funding for rehabilitation programs in the last two years.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission’s Jury Empanelment report was tabled in parliament on Wednesday. It made a number of recommendations, such as calling jurors by number only (not by name), ending the practice of jurors “parading” past the accused, and allowing up to 15 jurors to deliberate instead of additional jurors being “balloted off” at the end of the trial. The most significant recommendation was to reduce the number of peremptory challenges. The VLRC said that on current statistics, “For every man challenged, two women are challenged”, and as a result “women make up on average only 44 per cent of jurors on criminal trials”. Reducing the number of peremptory challenges would limit their impact on the gender representativeness of juries. The Government will now consider the recommendations before deciding whether to implement them.
The Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw, returned to Parliament this week following his suspension. Upon his return, he gave a Personal Explanation: “To avoid being in contempt of the Legislative Assembly, … I humbly and sincerely apologise to the house and to the people of Victoria for my breach of the code of conduct for members”. However, later that day, Shaw told the Herald Sun the situation was “a political farce”. Premier Denis Napthine took this as evidence that the apology was not genuine, and moved a motion to expel Shaw permanently—but the Opposition dismissed it as a “stunt” and voted with Shaw to keep him in the chamber. There is only one sitting week of parliament remaining before the election.