Summary case conferencing is now available at all metropolitan Magistrates’ Courts (except Melbourne where it will be introduced on 15 March) as well as Ballarat and Geelong. It is one of the new features of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009. Other significant features include the Notice to Appear and preliminary briefs.
The Best Practice Guide was commissioned by the Summary Procedure Steering Group which oversees the implementation and roll out of the changes. It aims to promote common understanding of the legislative framework and provide best practice advice. It is important for criminal law practitioners to appreciate the impact that the changes may have on their practice.
It's hardly comprehensive, but offers the most detail so far of what the powers-that-be have in mind for the summary process. One of the key points seems to be an expectation that the Magistrates' Court will refuse many adjournment applications which would previously have been granted as a matter of course (at page 7):
The Good Adjournment
In Notice to Appear cases a spare copy of the preliminary brief will be available at court on the return date. Therefore, a case can no longer be adjourned because the accused or their legal practitioner does not have a copy of the brief.
It also means that where a summary case conference could not be conducted before court, it can now be conducted at court on the return date. The idea that an accused is entitled to a couple of initial adjournments without question will be a thing of the past. The accused will no longer automatically obtain an adjournment at the counter.
Generally, adjournments should only occur to advance the progress of the case. Good adjournments will be for:
• a plea hearing
• to obtain further disclosure
• to obtain the full brief
• contest mention
• contested hearing.
The Magistrates' Court of Victoria Listing Protocols (updated in January) don't offer much more explanation of this, although they do seem to suggest that adjournments may be shorter than previously granted:
The Court aims to list criminal cases in accordance with the following timeframes:
* Return Date to further mention hearing: 2-4 weeks
* Return Date/second mention hearing to plea: 2-4 weeks
* Return Date to contest mention hearing: 4-8 weeks
* Return Date to hearing (less than 1 Day with Case Conference, if appropriate) but no contest mention: 6-10 weeks
* From contest mention hearing to hearing: 10-14 weeks
The above timeframes do not apply to cases involving persons in custody.
Note: Return Date is the first date on which the proceeding is listed before the Court Proceedings may be adjourned at the discretion of the court. There is no right to an "automatic" adjournment on the first return of a case. One of the case management objectives of the court is to reduce delay.
None of these guidelines are referred to by the Act. How strictly they will be adhered to remains to be seen. It seems likely that, until funding issues for counsel are resolved, the new procedures may prove difficult to comply with.