Grafton Court House
Grafton Court House Caitlan Charles

Court delays might encourage “convenient” guilty pleas

PLEADING not guilty in Grafton Local Court could mean people spend more time in jail than they should says a Grafton solicitor.

Since late March, acting on memorandums from NSW Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson, courts have put off defended matters until a date in September.

Grafton solicitor Greg Coombes this created problems for defendants denied bail.

"The temptation is to plead guilty to something they say they haven't done," he said.

He said the September date would be merely be a hearing to list their matters.

"I can imagine a lot of these matters won't be heard until next year," he said.

"If you're in custody, charged with something that if you plead guilty you might be out in less time than if you wait for your matter to be heard, then it is easy to take the convenient decision."

Mr Coombes said when the COVID-19 restrictions started to take effect, there had been a tendency to allow bail to avoid the risk introducing the virus into the jail system.

"The worm has turned now," Mr Coombes said. "There's not as many getting bail now because of COVID."

Mr Coombes said the rapid changes in response to COVID-19 from the chief magistrate have been hard to follow.

"There's been nine memorandums and they're all multi-page documents," he said.

"The first memorandum said people should not attend the court house," he said.

"Then later ones said people should in certain situations. It got very confusing."

Staff at the court house could not comment to the media, but pointed to the chief magistrate's memorandums.

The most recent said October had been set aside to deal with the backlog of defended matters and the northern region relieving magistrate could be rostered for extra hearing days.

Mr Coombes said he expected extra hearing days, but wondered where the extra magistrates would come from.

"From what I understand it's going to be happening all over the state," he said. "Every region will be looking for extra hearing days."

Mr Coombes said District Court would sit in Grafton next week and said the judge had shown a refreshing clarity in his directions.

"He sent us a simple email, saying to forget any other directions and he looked forward to seeing us in person in court next week," Mr Coombes said.

But he said it would be different District Court sitting.

"Jury trials have been canned because of COVID-19," he said.

The Grafton sitting time also straddles a change in direction from the chief judge, who had indicated limited jury trials would recommence in Sydney, Parramatta and Newcastle from June 1.

"That's right in the middle of the sittings in Grafton," Mr Coombes said. "We'll have to see what happens then."