Courts keen to convert empty office buildings amid case backlog

The Chief Judge of the County Court says vacant buildings in Melbourne’s CBD could be turned into courtrooms to address a backlog of cases caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chief Judge Peter Kidd said there were “three or four” vacant buildings the court was looking to re-purpose, including office buildings that were vacated in the pandemic.

Country Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd says buildings left vacant owing to the pandemic could be turned into courtrooms. Credit:Joe Armao

“We’ve got to look at how we can secure additional resources and that’s what we’re looking at with the government,” Judge Kidd told ABC radio on Tuesday morning.

The number of criminal trials waiting to start before the County Court has doubled after jury trials were suspended in March last year because of the pandemic.

Though trials restarted late last year, there was still a backlog of about 1600 cases.

Criminal Bar Association chair David Hallowes, SC, supported the proposal.

Melbourne’s County Court building on the corner of William and Lonsdale streets.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“The Criminal Bar Association has been advocating throughout the pandemic for other buildings to be used to deal with the concerning backlog,” Mr Hallowes told The Age.

Judge Kidd also suggested new judges could be appointed earlier to increase the number of people on the bench to work through the caseload.

Between five and six judges retire every year, he said, and instead of waiting until they retire, new judges could be appointed in advance.

This would not only give the court more judges for a period of time to help with the work, but by the time the old judges retire, the new judges would be up to speed.

“What I need to do is provide them [the government] with sensible, informed options and that’s what we’re doing,” Judge Kidd said.

He said it would take between four and six years to reduce the backlog depending on which of the measures he has put forward are adopted and when.

He also confirmed accused criminals are being granted bail ahead of their trials because of the delay.

“If the delay for somebody receiving their day in court blows out to an unacceptable level, then they’ll get bail,” he said.

How one of the Supreme Court rooms have been set up for social distancing to allow for jury trials to restart.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“It becomes an unacceptable circumstance.”

Delays would also be taken into account during sentencing, he said.

Two weeks ago, a man accused of murdering gangland lawyer Joseph Acquaro was granted bail in the Supreme Court ahead of his trial due to delays in his case.

The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Institute of Victoria have previously called on the government to provide immediate funding to assist with clearing the backlog across the courts.

About 200,000 cases are pending across the state’s courts, partly due to the impact of the pandemic.

The number of pending cases before the high-volume Magistrates Court doubled for criminal matters and increased by 45 per cent for family violence cases to almost 145,500, figures from the Department of Justice and Community Safety revealed.

More than 20,000 cases are pending before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal – a 139 per cent increase on its normal volume of upcoming hearings.

The Supreme Court experienced only a 3 per cent increase in its pending cases, while the Children’s Court and Coroners Court experienced an almost 30 per cent jump.

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