Faculty of Business and Law
School of Law and Justice
Australian courts, as with those in most common law systems, value judicial officers who are generalists. Appointment to a court indicates that the appointee is capable of dealing impartially with all types of cases that come before it. However, caseload allocation processes within courts also recognize and value different skills or expertise that may be applied to particular types of cases or to particular judicial tasks. Our research investigates ways magistrates courts in Australia (first instance courts of general criminal and civil jurisdiction) manage caseload allocation processes to match magistrates’ skills and abilities to specific work demands within their general jurisdictions as well as to the demands of specialist lists and courts. The research draws on interview data collected from judicial officers and court staff involved in caseload allocation in four Australian jurisdictions. This research finds that these courts place a high value on the principle that ‘everyone should be able to do everything’ and the entitlement of individual judicial officers to a caseload that is balanced and fair in relation to their colleagues. However, this preference for generalist judicial officers can create tensions in relation to the need to staff specialist lists, and to sometimes use particular skills in the general lists. Despite the presumption of competence, those allocating generalist and specialist caseload take into account different skills and expertise in the judicial workforce in the allocation decisions. Preferences of judicial officers for particular types of work can also play a role. However, the process by which assessments are made about expertise is also less than transparent in many cases, and draws largely on informal sources of knowledge. Magistrates and court users may benefit from a more clearly defined and transparent process to identify and develop skills and expertise, and allocate caseload accordingly. Such a process must preserve the flexibility that these high-volume courts need to deal with their caseload efficiently and appropriately and to match judicial skills to the needs of particular types of cases.
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