Scrap committals, says prosecutor

A costly waste of time, Rapke claims
COMMITTAL hearings should be abolished because they are a waste of time and money and clog up an overburdened court system, according to the director of public prosecutions, Jeremy Rapke, QC.
“It’s a costly and inefficient and time-wasting process, for what you get out of it,” he told The Age. “They don’t serve the purpose they were originally intended to serve, which is as a proper filtering process.”
Mr Rapke also called for tougher sentences for drug offences. “It’s rare these days for courts to be dealing with crimes that don’t have some kind of drug element to them.
“Whether committed by persons under the influence of drugs or committed in order to buy drugs – I think, from the figures I’ve seen, 90% of crime is drug related in one of those two ways. So, therefore, the penalties which were imposed 25 or 30 years ago don’t reflect the burgeoning crime problem associated with drugs.”
All criminal prosecutions destined for the County or Supreme Courts first come before a magistrate, who holds a committal hearing to assess whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial. Mr Rapke said very few committals resulted in the dismissal of a case. Even where this happened, he had the right to take the matter directly to court.
“A good example of this is the Bandali Debs case. I appeared at his committal (for the murder of) little Kristy Harty, whose body was found up in the bush. The magistrate said: ‘Well, I’m not going to commit him on that.’ Five minutes after she made that decision, Paul Coghlan, who was then the director of public prosecutions, gave notice of trial. And a jury convicted him (Debs). All directors retain this right. So what purpose does the committal serve?”
Mr Rapke said abolishing committals would eliminate much of the delay between when an accused was charged and when the trial was heard. “Magistrates courts would have a lot more capacity to push through with their (other) work.”
Mr Rapke said there was now a much greater need for deterrence, both general and individual, about drug-related crime. “It sends a message to the community that this type of crime will not be tolerated.”
And he said sentencing of sex crimes had fallen behind community expectations. “I’ve recently launched an appeal where I have invited the Court of Appeal to look at our current sentencing practices to determine whether or not they need to be reviewed.
“The sentence imposed (in that appeal case) was in line with current sentencing practices for rape. But, bearing in mind that rape carries a maximum sentence of 25 years, when you see three or four-year sentences, you have to ask yourself: ‘Well, what’s the maximum reserved for’?”
There were 3068 committal hearings conducted in Victoria in 2007-08; 3260 in 2006-07; and 3253 in 2005-06.

First published in The Age.