State's top judge Graeme Henson urges magistrates to take care of themselves to avoid burnout

Support: Chief magistrate Graeme Henson with former magistrate Wayne Evans.

Support: Chief magistrate Graeme Henson with former magistrate Wayne Evans.

The top judge in the state says he has no concerns about the workload facing magistrates on the Port Macquarie and Kempsey circuits.

Chief Magistrate Judge Graeme Henson described the workload at the courthouses on the circuits as being "acceptable".

There has been increased focus on magistrates' workload and mental health - particularly in the Port Macquarie, Wauchope and Kempsey circuit - after former magistrate Dominique Burns faced a string of misconduct complaints earlier this year.

The conduct under review occurred between June 22, 2016 and February 23, 2017, and involved 17 cases which fell in seven broad categories of "serious departures from proper standards".

Ms Burns was appointed to the bench in January 2015 and appointed to the Port Macquarie Local Court circuit in January 2016. Prior to her appointment, Ms Burns had over 30 years' experience in the legal profession.

She was suspended in June 2017 before announcing her retirement before a final judgement could be handed down.

At her hearing, Ms Burns' barrister Arthur Moses SC said his client accepted she made mistakes that "should not have been made" but contended that her crushing workload of a "tsunami" of cases contributed to mental health issues.

Judge Henson said the area currently has two magistrates located in the area following the decision by the government to return some of the positions they didn't fill between 2012 and 2017.

"The current state of the lists at Port Macquarie and Kempsey are well within acceptable limits," he said.

"I have no concerns about the workload on the Port Macquarie and Kempsey circuits."

According to NSW court lists, there were 30 matters listed at Kempsey courthouse on Monday July 1 while the following day at Wauchope courthouse there were 30 matters listed.

On Wednesday July 3, at the Port Macquarie Local Court, there were 90 matters listed.

Former magistrate Dominique Burns retired before "serious departures from proper standards" against her could be finalised.

Former magistrate Dominique Burns retired before "serious departures from proper standards" against her could be finalised.

Difficult times

Judge Henson acknowledged the difficulties facing a country magistrate and encouraged every magistrate to speak with their colleagues on a regular basis.

"Country magistrates are part of the community. Most, if not all, engage with their local communities in a limited way.

"Obviously, a country magistrate cannot engage in activities to the same degree as the rest of the community.

"They have to be circumspect in their friendships and relationships within the community they serve.

"Outside this, every magistrate is encouraged to speak with their colleagues by phone and email regularly. Each year there is a northern and southern regional educational conference for country magistrates.

"I sit down with every country magistrate on a confidential one-on-one basis and talk to them about their health, work life balance and the issues that are concerning them about their role and the country circuit in particular."

I sit down with every country magistrate on a confidential one-on-one basis and talk to them about their health, work life balance and the issues that are concerning them about their role and the country circuit in particular.

Chief magistrate Graeme Henson

As well, every judicial officer has access to the justice health program.

This program provides access to regular health checks, counselling and related medical services.

It is provided on a strictly confidential basis. All magistrates are encouraged to undergo an annual health check, particularly country magistrates, Judge Henson said.

Professional development

He said the court is about to introduce a regime which will take every magistrate out of court for at least one day every two months to focus on professional development and other issues currently dealt with at the end of a busy court day.

In addition, the time out of court is intended to break the constant demands of being in court every day.

Judge Henson says he is also encouraging magistrates across the state to "take care of themselves".

"A magistrate can only deal with the cases in front of them one at a time," he said.

"Case management techniques, practice notes directed at the management of cases by the prosecution and defense, mentoring and continuing judicial education programs are all intended to build on the legal skills of magistrates so they are not overwhelmed.

"In addition, changes have been made to listings across the state to increase the number of list days.

Every magistrate is encouraged to take care of themselves. It is, after all, a personal responsibility. Every magistrate is told their health and family come first.

Chief magistrate Graeme Henson

"It comes at the expense of the number of days allocated to hearing defended matters, but is the only sensible way of managing rising caseloads.

"Every magistrate is encouraged to take care of themselves. It is, after all, a personal responsibility. Every magistrate is told their health and family come first.

"If there is an issue with their well-being or ability to cope they are urged to raise it with me confidentially so the court can make arrangements for time out.

"If necessary, we will create the environment where the magistrate can seek assistance either through their family medical practitioner or within the justice health program."

Chief magistrate Graeme Henson outside the Taree Courthouse.

Chief magistrate Graeme Henson outside the Taree Courthouse.

Avoiding burnout

However, Judge Henson acknowledged he was always conscious of the possibility of burnout.

He said the recent phenomenon is the by-product of rising caseloads and the length and complexity of the types of matters that are now dealt with in the local court instead of the district court, and the lack of resourcing by the government to meet increased demands on the court.

"There is a limit to what we can achieve through internal caseload management practices," he said.

"The increasing caseloads mean the courts are sitting longer, which can result in exhaustion and 'decision fatigue'.

"I am constantly monitoring delays to address any unreasonable backlogs by providing assistance where required.

"However, we need more magistrates and resources moving forward so the NSW Local Court can maintain its high clearance rate, ensuring it continues to be the best in its jurisdiction nationwide."

Judge Henson described the NSW Local Court as the "workhorse of the justice system".

"The NSW Local Court system deals with 96 per cent of all criminal matters from start-to-finish," he said.

"Yet it continues to be the best performing court in its jurisdiction across Australia.

"The Productivity Commission's Report on government services regularly shows the local court is a national leader with the highest clearance rate for civil and criminal cases, and has one of the lowest backlogs."

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