Supreme Court tuts Proactive Magistrate

The ACT Supreme Court has warned Magistrates not to undertake their own investigations when deciding applications before the Court.

In Le Clair v Childs [2015] ACTSC 118 the Defendant was before Court, listed for hearing, after months of adjournments and having been set down for hearing a number of times previously.

The Defendant was brought up from the holding cells and was somewhat perplexed that his Legal Aid solicitor had not appeared to run his ABH assault charge. The Defendant claimed he had in fact been granted aid for the hearing but had refused to Legal Aid solicitor assigned to him on the basis that she had previously advised to to plead guilty to a different charge but that another was assigned to him.

The Magistrate, seemingly unhappy with the veracity of these claims, stood the matter down and apparently contacted a Legal Aid solicitor or the office who confirmed that they had granted aid but could not provide a different solicitor. The Defendant ran his own case and was subsequently found guilty.

On appeal, Justice Burns was seemingly not impressed with the investigations, whatever they revealed and having found that an oral application for an adjournment was on foot, warned the Court not to rely on anything that was not directly before it when deciding the application.

7. I want to make it clear that I do not suggest that magistrates are required to grant an adjournment every time such an adjournment is sought by an unrepresented accused in proceedings in that Court. Much will depend upon the circumstances of the case. However, what I want to make clear is that, in exercising the discretion whether to grant an adjournment, a magistrate is expected to act judicially and to abide by the rules of natural justice and also procedural fairness.

This is a tough one, there is no doubting the importance of the right of the parties to challenge anything the judicial officer seeks to rely on. But that being said, the ACT Magistrates generally have a hard go of it. They are the most expert Magistrates in the country and their jurisdiction is closer to a District Court or the old Federal Magistrates, on top of their local court style jurisdiction. They currently have the biggest backlog in the Territory and despite the constant repetitions of the Supreme Court about the need for quick, inexpensive justice in the Magistrates Court, they are increasingly under a caseload burden. When a Defendant is before the Courts, having been listed for hearing several times, applies for aid, is granted aid, fires aid and asks for another adjournment….it’s not too much a stretch to believe that about 3/4 of the Magistrates would have done the same thing.
Broad message? Remember to get anything you need to rely on into evidence.

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