A shortage of judges and magistrates has led to unsustainable workloads, fuelling case delays that harm victims and those accused of crimes, two senior NSW legal figures say.
Chief Justice Andrew Bell delivered a rare public rebuke of government policies in a speech at the NSW Law Society’s opening-of-term dinner on Wednesday night, calling for more court resources and higher salaries for the judiciary.
Despite being home to 8.5 million people and boasting an economy worth $700 billion, NSW had fewer than 300 judges and magistrates, he said.
“Our judges and magistrates can only be stretched so far,” Justice Bell said.
“And overstretched they are, both in terms of numbers and resourcing.
“The pool of their undoubted goodwill and physical and emotional capacity is not infinitely deep.”
Some local courts were dealing with over 140 matters a day, a workload that was unsustainable, he said.
Justice Bell also criticised a May 2023 decision by the NSW government to freeze the wages of senior public servants, including judges, for two years.
“The state government’s current two-year freeze on judicial salaries which, unless corrected, will result in a 10 per cent reduction in the real wages of the judiciary,” he said.
In May, the NSW government said the wage freeze would rein in expenditure and save an estimated $260 million over four years.
NSW Law Society president Brett McGrath backed the chief judge’s comments, saying there was an urgent need for more judicial officers and court staff to help get through a backlog of cases.
“Courts that are not able to provide a trial outcome to accused persons in a reasonable time frame is not only unfair to them, but also to alleged victims of crime and their families,” he said on Thursday.
“Matters can take many months, even into years, before being resolved.
“The chief justice’s remarks echo the adage that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.”
Mr McGrath called for the state government to carefully consider its approach to court funding in the next budget.
NSW Premier Chris Minns admitted the court backlog was long but pointed to the recruitment of frontline public sector workers as a solution.
He said a broad public service wage cap, introduced by the coalition but abolished by Labor in November, resulted in the deterioration of services like those delivered in the justice system.
The chief judge’s speech came ahead of the 200th anniversary of legislation, which took effect on May 17, 1824, that created the NSW Supreme Court.
Justice Bell admitted some changes in the court had come too slowly, such as the appointment of the state’s first female justice in 1987.
But he noted two thirds of legal practitioners under 35 were now women, while women represented nearly 45 per cent of the state’s judicial officers.
As part of the bicentenary, the NSW Supreme Court will offer mini-internships with judges for Indigenous students or young practitioners.
“There are some outstanding Indigenous lawyers in our profession but they are far too few and a great burden is placed upon them,” Justice Bell said.