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Justice delayed is justice denied…and deadly

If you have heard any of Queensland Law Society’s presidents speak over the past five or six years, you will probably have heard the legal maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

The origins of the phrase are not clear, but versions of it appear in everything from the Magna Carta (“To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.”) to the writings of Marin Luther King Jr (“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”).

The truth of that maxim has been underlined by the current pandemic. When our cities ground to a halt our courts stopped with them, and those caught up in the justice system were frozen in time – bail applications in limbo, custody battles suspended, compensation claims halted.

That delay is certainly a denial of justice, and one that can prove deadly. In the past, inmates awaiting bail have been murdered by other inmates, and the slow grind of compensation claims through the system has seen those afflicted with terminal conditions pass away before their claims are heard.

The pandemic has shown that the justice system adapts very well on the fly, but the delays suffered by those in the system are real and traumatic; it is time we were better prepared.

Throughout this crisis the Queensland Government has (rightly) regarded solicitors and law firms as essential businesses, and those solicitors and firms have risen to that challenge. Our members can be proud of the way they have continued to provide critical service to clients and community during the pandemic.

It is worth noting that the Victorian Government, heading into stage four lockdowns in the wake of the second wave, has mandated that legal and accounting services will have to close – although there is an exception for the justice system. Lawyers and courts involved in urgent or priority matters, including for bail, family violence, remand, child protection, warrants and urgent guardianships, human rights or residential tenancies issues will be allowed to continue.

Should Queensland find itself in a similar position, we may struggle to provide those services safely. The faults in the system have been laid bare by our insidious microscopic opponent. Many of our courts lack the technological infrastructure to truly deliver services on-line, which has become essential in our ‘new normal’. With another 750 000 viruses out there in the animal kingdom, each with the potential to cross over into humans and become the next COVID-19, we need to upgrade our disaster response capabilities.

In the run-up to the Queensland state election, the Society will be calling on all parties to commit to increasing the pace of our courts and lifting their ability to respond to crises. That includes:

  • delivering electronic filing for all state courts, tribunals and commissions by 2022
  • improving physical and technological court infrastructure to meet the needs of users, particularly in regional areas, to ensure circuit courts, tribunals and commissions are able to sit without disrupting local court matters
  • ensuring court proceedings are supported by an appropriate numbers of registrars, court liaison officers and other support services (such as the Court Network Volunteer Service) to assist vulnerable people in the court system
  • updating the Queensland Courts website so that court services can be easily accessed and navigated by all court users, including vulnerable people and people who require interpretation services.

The Society will also call for parties to support law firms as essential community infrastructure. The overwhelming majority of Queensland’s law firms are made up of five or fewer solicitors, and many are vital parts of our regional communities. To that end QLS seeks a commitment to:

  • the annual review of hourly Legal Aid rates for private practitioners and family law report writers taking into account CPI increases
  • the creation of a discrete funding pool for Legal Aid preferred suppliers to increase the referral of work to private firms, with a particular emphasis on allocating funds to rural, regional and remote areas
  • adopting a broader definition of pro bono work for firms involved in the tendering process for government contracts to include volunteer work of a legal nature done for the public good, including honorary positions on the boards of charities and not-for-profit associations and work done to promote good law in law reform.

This pandemic has shown that the legal profession is capable of adjusting to disruption, as seen by the rapid adoption of online hearings; it would be delinquent of us to revert to the old ways (and the virus may not be ready to let us in any event). Electronic filing, remote callovers and the like will speed up our justice system and enable solicitors to deliver cheaper, faster and more widespread access to justice; it is incumbent on the government to enable the profession to do so.

Members are invited to review the Call to Parties statement here. The Queensland state election is due to be held on 31 October.

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