Bench justices rethink mooted

THE Law Society of Tasmania has said that if the Magistrates Court continues to hear fewer matters, the use of bench justices for preliminary proceedings could be reconsidered.

Bench justices are usually non-legally qualified justices of the peace who have done a bench justice course.

They hear after-hours lock-up matters and, for the past several years, the majority of preliminary proceedings ordered for Supreme Court trials.

The aim of preliminary proceedings, which replaced committal hearings heard by magistrates, is for the accused to understand the prosecution's evidence before trial.

At committals, magistrates decided if an accused should be committed to the Supreme Court for trial, but this is not the purpose of preliminary proceedings.

Law society president Anthony Mihal said that the society had supported the move to bench justices because of issues with court resources and the length of time it was taking for matters to go to trial in the Supreme Court.

"But that is not to say that the situation is ideal," he said.

"There is a certain amount of disquiet among practitioners about the decisions that bench justices make at times. And that is a question of their training."

Mr Mihal said the number of people appearing in intake courts had decreased for some years, with a large drop in the last financial year.

"If it's something that keeps on being sustained over time, then the court could reconsider the matter, to see if it needs to rely on bench justices, who are volunteers, in preliminary proceedings," he said.

Mr Mihal said it was usual for preliminary proceedings to be heard in open court, but the public interest in them was more limited because of the nature of the proceedings."It's entirely for the benefit of the accused," he said. "No decisions are made by the bench justice that have an impact on the progress of the case itself."

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