Submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission: Review into Victoria’s Committal System
ALHR recently made a submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) in relation to their review of Victoria’s Committal System.
The terms of reference ask the VLRC to consider opportunities for reform to the committal procedures in respect of criminal proceedings in Victoria. In particular, the VLRC is tasked with considering what reform, if any, would encourage appropriate early guilty pleas, facilitate efficient use of court time, improve early disclosure processes, minimise the need for victims and other vulnerable witnesses to give evidence multiple times, and protect fair trial rights.
ALHR is concerned about the potential for adverse impacts on the human rights and liberties of Victorians, should reform of committal proceedings be rushed or pursued without comprehensive analysis of relevant human rights and rule of law considerations. ALHR submits that properly run committal proceedings are an asset to Victoria’s criminal justice system.
The available evidence regarding the current committal system suggests it is not as unsatisfactory as some critics have suggested. The evidence indicates that a substantial number of weak prosecution cases are being filtered out, and a large number of guilty pleas are being identified at the committal stage. The present arrangements also seem to be operating reasonably well in relation to disclosure mechanisms. Furthermore, there appears to have been somewhat exaggerated perceptions of the amount of time in Magistrate’s Courts which is expended on committal hearings and of the extent to which committals have contributed to delays in the whole system. Claims about the impact of committal proceedings on witnesses also appear to have been overstated, given the small proportion of committal hearing that seek and are granted leave to cross-examine witnesses. There is no doubt that some aspects of the committal system may be improved, but ALHR submits that is not fundamentally flawed. Any future policy decisions about it should flow directly from recommendations out of the VLRC inquiry and they must be based on clear and incontrovertible evidence, not unsubstantiated hopes or optimistic assumptions regarding saving time or convenience in the operation of the criminal justice system. It is respectfully submitted that the so-called benefits of their abolition have not been demonstrated in those States which have taken that course.
In ALHR’s view contested committals should not be abolished. While not perfect, they are a vital link in the criminal justice system and in the protection of the right to a fair trial.