Mr COLLIER: My question without notice is addressed to the Attorney General. What is the latest information on pre-trial disclosure in criminal cases?
Mr DEBUS: The Government is committed to improving the conduct of complex criminal trials, to improving the capacity of the courts to deal with criminal trials, and to ensuring that victims of crime endure minimal trauma during trial. This is more important now than ever before because we live in a time when scientific evidence and expert witnesses are crucial to criminal proceedings. With the 1 January 2001 commencement of the Government's DNA legislation, we need to make sure that complexities surrounding scientific proceedings do not cause more complex or lengthier trials. We also need to stop attempts at ambush defences where surprise last-minute evidence is introduced into court to delay the process and to traumatise victims of crime. That is why during this parliamentary session the Government is introducing historic legislation to implement a pre-trial disclosure regime. The proposed legislation will allow judges to speed up criminal trials by requiring the defence to outline its case before a trial begins.
The legislation will establish a routine for pre-trial disclosure for complex criminal trials. The judge will be able to require both the Crown and the defence to reveal specific evidence and material at a reasonable time before the trial. Pre-trial disclosure will forever change the conduct of complex criminal trials in New South Wales. For the first time, with the consent of the court, the defence must disclose before the actual trial whether it intends to rely on specific defences—such as insanity, self-defence, provocation, accident, duress, claim of right, automatism or intoxication—as well as the already required disclosure when a defendant seeks to rely on an alibi or impairment of mind. If those requirements are not met, the judge can refuse to allow the evidence to be admitted later.
On the other hand, the prosecution must disclose before the trial a copy of the charges, an outline of the prosecution case, copies of witness statements and documents relied upon, reports of expert witnesses, information relevant to the reliability and credibility of prosecution witnesses, unused police and prosecution material gathered in preparing the case and material in its possession adverse to the credibility of the defendant. Similarly, reports and disclosure of witnesses will be required before the trial. Following the defence disclosure, the prosecution will have further responsibilities concerning whether it takes issue with the disclosed information, such as the use of expert evidence or continuity of defence exhibits.
Complex criminal trials require extensive resources provided by the taxpayer. Pre-trial disclosure is designed to lessen the time spent in court arguing over process, which causes frustration to all parties and greatly adds to the cost borne by taxpayers. These changes do not impede the prosecution in the proper exercise of its responsibilities or the ability of the defence to argue its case in a fair manner. The police, courts and victims of crime all benefit because the defence and the prosecution must thoroughly prepare their cases in advance and settle on the issues in dispute before presenting them at trial.
This new process, which will commence early next year, will remain under review and a report of its implementation will be completed after 18 months. I am advised that last year 250 criminal trials took 10 days or more to complete. The application of the new regime will decrease trial length, the average cost of complex criminal trials and the time in courtrooms, occupying available judges. The Attorney General's Department estimates that pre-trial disclosure could reduce some complex matters by a number of days and provide an extraordinary saving of up to 40 per cent of time spent at trial. I shall monitor the ability of the courts to then list more matters and to reduce overall waiting times as a result. The Government will also provide the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Legal Aid Commission with additional resources to meet the requirements of this new pre-trial disclosure regime.
I would like to thank the members of the working party who were able to bring about these proposals. The working party consisted of staff of the Attorney General's Department, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Law Society, the Cabinet Office, the Police Service, the Bar Association, the Crown Prosecutors and Public Defenders offices and the Criminal Law Review Division of the Attorney General's Department. The working party was representative of all parties who had a legitimate interest in ensuring not only a more efficient court system but also a court system that continued to proceed with fairness and justice in the discharge of its responsibilities.