Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (15:27): My question is to the Attorney-General regarding the ongoing backlog of criminal matters pending before Victorian courts.

There are reports that the time between charges laid and reaching trial has doubled since the start of the pandemic. This backlog, particularly for jury trials of the most serious cases, is of immense concern to victims of crime. It delays their justice, leaving them hanging in a state of fear which perpetuates their trauma.

It appears that $210 million does not go very far in terms of addressing the backlog of cases in our criminal system. There are some suggestions that criminals may be offered substantial discounts for guilty pleas in order to reduce this backlog, which is likely to leave victims feeling further devalued by the system.

Rapid testing was touted as a game changer in bringing trials back to Victorian courts, yet the Supreme Court, for example, remains virtually closed. Attorney, why are courts continuing to delay the implementation of rapid testing when it could help return matters to court and remove the need for sentencing discounts?

Ms SYMES (Attorney General, Minister for Emergency Services, Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council) (15:28): I thank Ms Maxwell for her question.

I can provide some commentary in relation to court backlogs and the government support in relation to that. But due to the separation of powers, I work alongside the courts—I do not dictate or control their operations—so some of your questions would be better put to the courts on those specific operational requirements.

Of course during the pandemic courts were not any different to a lot of other industries where health restrictions to protect Victorians resulted in them having to pivot to online hearings where possible, and indeed jury trials were obviously the biggest impact because you cannot have a jury trial online.

I am pleased to say that the courts have made real progress over the last 18 months in relation to their practices and particularly in relation to court backlogs. Pending matters have grown slightly in some jurisdictions due to the recent lockdowns, but the growth has been considerably lower than it was from the impacts of the lockdowns experienced in 2020, which is a testament to the courts’ commitment to finding new, innovative ways of advancing the matters that they deal with. Since August 2021, despite the challenges, there has been a stabilisation in pending cases across all jurisdictions—Supreme Court, County Court and Magistrates Court.

Of course we do have ongoing backlogs, and I will continue to work with the courts on innovation, including conversations around rapid antigen testing and the refitting of facilities.

Indeed they are practices that they have shown they are very open to, looking at the best ways to ensure that they can get through all of their important matters, particularly those matters where victims are waiting on outcomes.

Ms MAXWELL (15:30): Thank you, Attorney, for that very wholesome response. Watch this space, I guess. Attorney, prosecutors are encouraged to consult with victims before charges are substantially modified or a guilty plea is accepted. Has the government considered formalising this by way of prosecutors presenting the result of this consultation to the court as a way to acknowledge the participation and views of victims?

Ms SYMES (15:31): That is a bit of a stretch from your substantive, but I guess I would answer that by saying that the courts have not introduced any special sentencing discounts in relation to conversations as you have outlined.

However, I have been very impressed with the Office of Public Prosecutions’ commitment to discussions with victims—involving victims in their processes—and I am sure we will have more to say as some of those practices become embedded and indeed take the opportunity to bring more of that information to the chamber as it evolves.