The time for change is now

The time for change is now

Cases such as this most recent matter and also such as the man erroneously charged with the rape of a child in Tennant Creek are serious examples of broader issues. Unfortunately they may be but the tip of the iceberg. Innocent people are spending far too much time locked up in the Northern Territories prisons.

There are rules and procedures that govern the duties and responsibilities of the various participants in our criminal justice system. When there is a failing by a party to diligently comply with their duties and responsibilities, the system fails and vulnerable participants, whether witnesses, complainants or defendants are unfairly impacted.

We can’t afford to have our system fail. Everyone involved must learn from this case and other instances when there are failings.

The Local Courts of the Northern Territory are busy and resources are always stretched to breaking point. Police, prosecutors and defence lawyers are under resourced and overworked, however fundamental duties cannot be allowed to be overlooked or excused, particularly when it appears there is no prospect of funding increases to the sector; and in fact there has been a significant reduction in the funding allocated to the Courts in the most recent budget.

The time for change is now.

Far too often we see defendants released on the day of a hearing because matters are unable to proceed as a result of investigative or procedural failures. Given the tough bail laws in our jurisdiction, the shameful over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody and the number of people awaiting trial or hearings on remand, we need to consider whether immediate changes are required to the presumptions in our Bail Act. Alternatively an urgent review of the process of arresting and charging persons absent significantly probative evidential material as opposed to a bare statement of complaint should be considered.

Arrest and imprisonment should be last resorts. The sooner we have wholesale improvements in the summary jurisdiction the healthier our criminal justice system will be. It is a timely reminder of the work that those developing the Aboriginal Justice Agreement have highlighted regarding institutional and systemic racism and the need for real measures and reforms to counter and change the current situation in the Northern Territory. We need to do better for all involved in the criminal justice system.