Reforms implemented in 2018 to tackle delays in the NSW District Courts have been found to have significantly increased the proportion of matters resolved by way of an early guilty plea.
The above findings were published in a recent report by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR).
The reforms, known as the Early Appropriate Guilty Pleas (EAGP) reforms, commenced on 30 April 2018 and apply to all strictly indictable and elected indictable table offences where proceedings commenced after this date.
Strictly indictable offences are criminal charges required to be dealt with in the District Court or Supreme Court and carry maximum penalties of more than 2 years imprisonment.
Elected table offences are those which the accused person, or the prosecutor (depending on the indictable offence) have elected to be dealt with in the District Court, instead of the Local Court.
The reforms aimed to improve court efficiency by reducing the number of guilty pleas entered on, or close to, the first day of trials.
Prior to reform, the Law Reform Commission found that whilst 73% of indictable criminal cases ended with the defendant pleading guilty, 23% of guilty pleas were not entered until the day of trial.
The EAGP process aims to remedy this issue through early certification of charges, increased and earlier negotiation between the defence and prosecution, and statutory sentencing discounts for early guilty pleas.
BOSCAR evaluated the success of the reforms by comparing outcomes for 3,612 cases initiated before the reforms with 3,100 cases initiated after the reforms commenced.
The analysis found that early guilty pleas in District Court matters increased by 6.5%, rising from 70% to 76.5%.
It also found that the reforms increased finalisations in the District Court by at least 7 additional matters each week.
Whereas it was anticipated that an increase in early guilty pleas would also reduce court delay, the study found that EAGP matters were not resolved faster.
Whilst it succeeded in reducing case processing time later on in proceedings (i.e., in the District Court) there was an increase in time spent by matters in the Local Court.
BOSCAR also interviewed many of those involved in the scheme including police, prosecutors, judicial officers, and legal practitioners.
Whilst most reported that elements of the EAGP reform package were being implemented as intended, over two-thirds stated that there were delays in briefs of evidence being served and in the charge certification process.
Commenting on the findings, BOCSAR Director, Dr Suzanne Poynton, said that, whilst the reforms were successful in achieving their primary aim to increase early guilty pleas, there is still room for improvement.
“Stakeholders have identified a number of areas where refinements could be made to the EAGP model in order to maximise their benefits” she explained.
The ‘EAGP’ process is as follows:
- The first step is for the police to serve a shorter form of their evidence to the Director or Public Prosecutions (DPP) and defence. The court, usually on the first court date, will make an order for the brief of evidence to be served within 8-weeks when the matter is next listed in court for the second court date.
- The second step, usually occurs on the second court date, assuming that the police evidence has been served upon the defence and DPP, the court will adjourn the case for 6-weeks in order for the DPP to certify the charges. By certifying the charges, the DPP confirm which charges they will drop and which to definitely proceed with at this early stage to avoid this issue arising later.
- The third step, usually occurs on the third court date, assuming the DPP have certified the charge(s), the court will adjourn the case for 8-weeks to a fourth court date in order for the defence and DPP to conduct a case conference to negotiate in a formal attempt to resolve the matter early. The case conference is to take place within 6-weeks, while the case conference certificate is to be completed by both parties and filed with the court by the fourth court date.
- The fourth step, usually occurs on the fourth court date, assuming the case conference certificate is filed, the court will commit the accused person to either trial or sentence in the District Court. On this court date, the accused confirms a plea of guilty or plea of not guilty. The court will adjourn the case to the District Court accordingly. This adjournment will usually be between one to 4 weeks.
What is a Charge Certificate? a charge certificate is a document that specifies the offences that are to be the subject of the proceedings against the accused, setting out the detail of these offences, back-up offences (if applicable), and other offences that are no longer being proceeded with (if applicable).
If a guilty plea is entered at the committal stage (in the local court phase), an accused person is entitled to a sentencing discount of 25%.
If its entered up to 14 days before the first day of trial in the District, a sentencing discount of 10% is applicable.
In any other circumstance, a 5% discount will be available. This discount will apply if a plea of guilty is entered within 14-days of the trial date.
However, judges retain the discretion to provide no sentencing discounts (or a lesser discount) in cases of extreme culpability.
Questions? Contact our friendly team of criminal lawyers Sydney branch for more information.