How much do you know about the Magistrates' Court of Victoria? Not much? Well, have a read at this longer-form post and find out more about the court and what happens there.

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria was established by the Magistrates’ Court Act 1989 (Vic) It has jurisdiction to determine and impose sentences for summary offences and a range of indictable offences.

The court has jurisdiction to conduct committal proceedings for those cases where it does not have original jurisdiction over indictable charges.  The court also has jurisdiction to hear and determine claims of up to $100,000 and to hear applications for injunctions for the return of property, equitable relief and to prevent the disposal of assets.  The court also possesses jurisdiction over a number of other matters such as some WorkCover proceedings, family violence, industrial matters, issues arising from local government elections, VOCAT, the Children’s Court and the Coroner’s Court.

The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria can be adequately called the ‘People’s Court’. If a person in Victoria is to appear before a court, there is a 90% probability they will appear at the Magistrates’ Court . Even if the court is at the bottom of the Australian court hierarchy; it handles the majority of the case load. In the financial year 2010-11, 166,791 criminal cases  and 41,796 civil cases were initiated in the Magistrates’ Court.  Compare this with the County Court’s total caseload of 11,812 cases and the Supreme Court’s 1,643 criminal cases and 392 civil cases all in the same year period.

It would be incorrect to the extreme to suggest that the superior courts are not equally stretched for time and resources because their case load is smaller. Nor is there any inference that the lowest court in the hierarchy is the most important. The numbers just illustrate the fact that Victorians who appear before a court are more than likely to attend the Magistrates’ Court above all others therefore the Court is in a unique position to make itself as accessible as possible to all Victorians.

This responsibility is not lost on the Court. The previous Chief Magistrate Mr Ian Gray, now His Honour Justice Gray,  constantly ensured that the court was independent, corruption-free, hardworking and efficient.  During Chief Magistrate Gray’s tenure the court sought to find innovative solutions for the dispensing of justice in meaningful ways.

In recent years the Magistrates’ Court Act has been amended to incorporate specialist jurisdictions into Victorian law. Some of these include the Koori Court, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, the Assessment and Referral Court and various programs such as the Court Referral and Evaluation for Drug Intervention and Treatment Program, Family Violence Court services and the Mental Health Court Liaison Service. These specialist services not only provide real access to justice but were seen by the Chief Magistrate as a way of using the Court not only as an arbiter but also a therapeutic agent in the lives of those who appear before it.

Another example of the Magistrates’ Court providing real access to justice is the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) which is Australia’s only community justice project.  The NJC works closely with police, support and welfare services and the local government to deliver crime prevention programs, community justice education and conflict resolution.  The results from the NJC’s model of community justice have been so encouraging the Attorney General wishes to transfer some of the NJC’s practices to other courts, particularly the NJC’s success in working with victims and its community engagement programs.

These reforms and innovations are clearly not for their own sake but rather to ensure that people are treated fairly if they come before the court. The court should always strive to engage the Victorian community in as many ways as possible.  The Chief Magistrate was aware that the public do not generally have a positive perception of courts; however this is something he hoped to change.

The Court under Chief Magistrate Gray was constantly looking to make itself even more available to Victorians.  This is crucial, as not every person who comes before the court will have a favourable outcome but they need to be able to feel that the court respects them and treats them fairly so that they can in turn respect the process.  The more open and accessible the court is to Victorians it will be able to not only execute its judicial duties, but also its civil duties of educating the public and upholding the rule of law in Victoria.  The ideas of last century of justice being dispensed from high benches in intimidating courtrooms is over. For Victorians to respect the legal system they must understand the system and also feel that they own the system that protects them.

The Magistrates’ Court is incredibly stretched and is faced  with the difficult position of having to do more without extra resources.  The work it does can often be mundane, routine and repetitive but it is a crucial part in the Victorian justice system.  Even with stretched resources the court should always do as best it can to continue to engage Victorians into the court and the legal system in positive and meaningful ways.  This not only encourages understanding of the justice system; it also goes a long way to strengthening and protecting one of the crucial pillars of our society, the rule of law.

UPDATE:

His Honour Justice Gray has taken up a spot at the County Court with His Honour Magistrate Peter Lauritsen taking his post  I wish Mr Lauritsen all the best in his new post and  hope he will continue Justice Gray’s brilliant work in the Magistracy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

  • County Court of Victoria Annual Report 2010-11 (2011)
  • Gregory, Jason, Law Institute of Victoria, Law Institute Journal, August (2012)
  • Magistrates’ Court of Victoria Annual Report 2010-11 (2011)
  • Supreme Court of Victoria Annual Report 2010- 11 (2011)
  • State Government of Victoria, Neighbourhood Justice Centre, Our Services <http://www.neighbourhoodjustice.vic.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=278> (20 Jun 2011)

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