A prominent Darwin barrister has called the Territory’s “dysfunctional” justice system out in court, saying “this legal system isn’t working” and that under-resourcing has led to a system that no longer “adheres to due process”.
John Lawrence SC was defending a client on Wednesday who had been charged on September 28 2021, as part of a police investigation that commenced in January 2020. His matter has been mentioned in court eight times and held over for months while the prosecution and investigators have failed to provide the full brief of evidence they’re relying on.
Mr Lawrence provided Judge Alan Woodcock a summation of the delays in the case, which have stretched on for months.
“Here we are now in May, yet again in this court proceeding, if that’s what it is,” Mr Lawrence said.
“What does that mean?” Judge Woodcock asked.
“It appears to me, as Senior Counsel, and I have to say this to the court, that this legal system isn’t working,” replied Mr Lawrence, who previously served as the president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the NT and the NT Bar Association.
“I’ve watched this, I’ve been involved in this, I’ve watched other cases where prosecutors get up, day in, day out, saying the police haven’t produced the evidence, and we’re all becoming normalised to it, including the defence lawyers.
“And I point this out from my chair of over 35 years. I appeared in this court in 1987 and it never used to be anywhere [near] like this. It’s effectively the opposite of due process and it’s become the norm …”
Prosecutor Abi Rajkumar then blamed COVID isolation for the inability of the senior crown prosecutor on the case from appearing.
“It does seem to be that it’s just unfortunate circumstances,” she said.
“It’s not unfortunate – it’s absolutely unsatisfactory,” Mr Lawrence shot back.
“That’s the problem that’s emerged in this court system over the years. It’s not functioning. It’s dysfunctional. It’s not working. It needs to be improved. And somebody needs to speak to the police because if I had 10 cents for every time I’ve heard a prosecutor get up and say ‘the police have told me this. I’m instructed by the police this’.
“Crown prosecutors have a responsibility to the administration of justice. If the police are not getting the evidence in to them on time, they have to be told as such. I don’t see that happening enough.”
Ms Rajkumar said that the defence had been given “a large amount of CCTV material” last month.
“That’s right, but I mean, why in April, when they’ve been investigating matters since January last year? That’s the problem, really,” Mr Lawrence said.
“I have no response to that,” Ms Rajkumar said.
The matter was held over again to May 25 for a preliminary examination mention.
Outside court, Mr Lawrence said his criticisms of the current system were warranted and said under-resourcing in the NT’s justice system “has led to dangerous inadequacies in the administration of justice”.
“Our legal system is now broken and like many other institutions these days, most of its participants are running around on this broken mouse-wheel and either can’t see or are denying its dysfunction,” he said.
“It is clearly unsustainable and will, in my opinion, collapse in the near future. This is a ‘system’ that jails 11-year-old children in a condemned adult prison while holding adult prisoners in an overcrowded and understaffed prison, which is currently a powder keg.
“Our court processes no longer adhere to due process and our courts’ product, being justice, has been sacrificed at the altar of budgetary constraints. Leadership is nowhere and unless the situation is acknowledged and addressed, we are heading for catastrophe.”