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SA courts brace for “unprecedented” budget cut

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EXCLUSIVE | Chief Justice Chris Kourakis is expecting an “unprecedented” cut to courts funding in the upcoming state budget, warning it would result in “significant” cuts to services.

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Kourakis says the Government has warned him there may be a large funding cut to the Courts Administration Authority in the upcoming state budget.

But Treasurer Rob Lucas stresses that no final decisions have yet been made.

Kourakis told InDaily during an interview this morning that the mooted cuts would be result in cuts to services.

“We’ve been told that there will be a substantial budget cut in this year’s budget,” he said.

“If it comes to pass … we will have to substantially reduce services, starting in the next financial year.”

The chief justice said the courts were already expected to absorb $7.7 million in cuts from out of previous budgets, and “we consider the combination of the $7.7 million … and what we’re about to get now as being unprecedented in terms of the size of the budget cut and the sorts of services that will have to be reduced”.

He said the $7.7 million figure had accumulated over successive budgets and includes efficiency dividends and operating efficiencies that must be made by the financial year 2021-2022.

“If we were just waiting until 2021-22, we would hope to meet a large part of that by the efficiencies that our new electronic court management system will achieve,” he said.

“We would be able to achieve (those) savings without massive reductions in services because they’d be replaced with electronic, online services.

“But if we have to start making substantial cuts from next financial year, then we think we’re in unprecedented territory.”

The State Government allocates the Courts Administration Authority’s budget, but the agency decides how to spend it.

Given that we’re facing a $330 million cut in GST revenues … we have to make some savings.

Kourakis said that although it remained unclear whether the latest expected cuts would actually happen, “there’s such a substantial prospect that we will that we (will start) consulting widely and early, so that if we’re forced to this, we make the decision that is least hurtful”.

The chief justice will travel to Whyalla and Port Augusta tomorrow, kicking off a state-wide consultation tour to discern where the cuts should fall if they do appear in the state budget, which Lucas is due to hand down in June.

He said he would also meet with stakeholders and hold public forums in central and suburban Adelaide, Berri, Port Lincoln and Mount Gambier.

“I’ll be consulting with lawyers, local MPs, councillors, our court’s staff about how important the service they get from our regional courts is and what sort of effect a reduction of those services might mean,” he told InDaily.

“It might be restricting or closing the registry services, where people can file things over a desk in their own town.

“We’ve made no decision whatsoever about what the service reduction will be and we won’t be in a position to do that until … we know what the final shape of the budget is.”

A variety of potential reductions in service were on the cards if the expected cut happens.

“It might mean the closure of a regional court or the reduction of support to judges, which will make it difficult to get judges into court,” he said.

“It might mean reductions in staff in other areas – not necessarily forced reductions – but it might just mean higher vacancy rates, which will mean that it will take longer to process documents.”

Lucas told InDaily this morning that no final decisions had been taken about potential cuts to the Courts Administration Authority, but that all Government agencies had been asked to look for savings in light of a significant reduction in GST revenues due in the next financial year.

“Given that we’re facing a $330 million cut in GST revenues … we have to make some savings (next) year, compared to this year,” said Lucas.

“We’ve discussed a range of … savings for all agencies including the Courts Administration Authority

“(But) this is all part of budget discussions. No final decisions have been taken.”

Kourakis acknowledged that the Government had to make savings in light of the lower GST takings.

“We understand that fall in GST revenue has caused a substantial problem for the Government and under the Act it’s absolutely for them to decide what our budget will be,” he said.

“Once they decide that then we have to work out how to fit our services around it.”

Judges will refuse to appoint Senior Counsel

Meanwhile, the judges of the Supreme Court have decided they will refuse to appoint the state’s best lawyers to the title of Senior Counsel, in a move Kourakis says is designed to protect judicial independence.

The Bar Association of South Australia has been asking the government to reintroduce the title of QC – Queen’s Counsel – so that potential clients can more easily recognise the distinction of its best-performing and highest-paid barristers.

The State Government moved to revive the practise last month, despite Kourakis warning Attorney-General Vickie Chapman last year that the move would undermine judicial independence, risk politicising the process and be potentially unconstitutional.

“It should not be assumed that if the SA Bar’s proposal were adopted that the Judges would facilitate it,” he wrote in a letter to Chapman in October 2018, adding: “The Judges of the Supreme Court cannot be co-opted by others into a scheme of their own making.”

But senior barristers who had been appointed ‘SC’ by the court have been applying to the Government to change their ‘S’ to a ‘Q’ since Cabinet took the decision last month.

In response, Kourakis told InDaily this morning, that the judges of the Supreme Court will now refuse to appoint SCs altogether.

“The judges have resolved to not appoint Senior Counsel in the future,” he said.

“The judges have decided that it was more important to uphold the principle set out in my letter than to continue to identify leading members of the profession so that the public might have some independent assurance about the barristers they engage.”

He said he and the other judges wished they did not have to take the decision.

“What you are taking away is the court putting reliable information into the legal services market about who the leading barristers are – that’s the loss,” he said.

“The judges made the decision with some sadness because many judges and many members of the profession have considered that important for the public.”

Chapman told InDaily in a statement this morning: “In light of the Chief Justice’s decision not to appoint SCs, I understand the Bar Association of South Australia and the Law Society are working on alternate models for future SC appointments.”

According to a government spokesperson, the Attorney-General’s office has received a number of applications for QC appointments, since the announcement in February.

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