Monday, August 13, 2012

A view from down under (Part III): A return to non-lawyer judges

The Courier Mail reported yesterday that Queensland's government--in the midst of draconian cost-cutting measures because of a massive deficit--will begin staffing the state's Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) with justices of the peace instead of lawyers and magistrates.  This means JPs--"some of whom are currently only responsible for witnessing documents--would settle matters over debts, property damage, residential tenancy, and consumer and trader disputes, after only a few weeks' training."

This is, of course, similar to the way rural courts of first impression operate in several U.S. states, including New York, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.  Such courts have been upheld as constitutionally permissible by the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently in North v. Russell in 1976.  In the U.S., such non lawyer courts are associated with de novo trials to courts at the next level up, which must be staffed by those trained as lawyers.  As I understand it, this new situation in Queensland takes the state back to an earlier time, when JPs heard disputes in the state's rural reaches.

The Courier Mail story continues:
Opponents of the plan to clear the backlog of QCAT cases have described it as cost-cutting gone mad, and said any time and cost saving would be short-term and outweighed by the extra cost and delays associated with more appeals.  
Queensland Council of Civil Liberties vice-president Terry O'Gorman said the decision flew in the fact of the direction being taken by every other state and territory, where tribunals are being given increased power to make decisions. 
The story also notes--predictably--that opponents of the new scheme worry that QCAT will be "reduced to a 'kangaroo court.'"  It does not specify what rights of appeal exist from these Tribunal decisions.  It also does not specify whether the use of non-lawyer judges in these Tribunals will occur primarily in rural and remote areas, where fewer lawyers live and work.

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