Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic center, is the target of a fresh initiative by the local government, businesses, and legal firms to increase the area’s legal precinct.
Rekindled support from the local council, local legal firms, and major institutions is being extended to an ambitious expansion of court infrastructure and services in Parramatta, with the goal of enhancing access to justice as Sydney’s population flows west.
The COVID-19 pandemic hampered momentum for the council-led initiative, which calls for the establishment of a permanent Supreme Court presence in Parramatta, a new law school in the region, and an increase in legal employment in the Parramatta CBD. The project was first proposed in 2021.
In an attempt to rally support for moving additional legal services west from central Sydney, the council and a consortium of western Sydney-based law companies and institutions are stepping up their advocacy efforts under the leadership of the newly elected Parramatta Lord Mayor Pierre Esber.
“Undiscovered potential” in Parramatta
The current Parramatta court precinct is already a “comprehensive and well-planned” concentration of legal services, as researchers from the University of Western Sydney, one of the plan’s supporters, make clear. With the exception of support services, coroner’s courts, prosecutor’s offices, and Commonwealth law courts like the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court, it “includes every level of state court.” In addition to housing a drug court, the roughly $330 million precinct was constructed.
Nevertheless, Parramatta Council believes there is a strong argument to develop the area, which is reportedly Sydney’s second-largest legal zone, by adding a new law school, a permanent Supreme Court presence, and a legal innovation start-up incubator that will create jobs.
Proponents argue that an additional thirty percent of Supreme Court proceedings could occur in the rapidly expanding western Sydney region if the court maintained a permanent physical presence in Parramatta, such as at Taylor Square in Darlinghurst and King Street in the CBD.
As per the council’s October presentation of its latest assessment on the idea, Parramatta can accommodate up to 4,000 additional Supreme Court cases annually.
The Supreme Court does, for the time being, hold occasional sessions in Parramatta.
Demographics are a major factor in the council’s effort to make Parramatta “one of Australia’s key legal hubs.” It makes the case that more legal services ought to be situated close to Sydneysiders, as the majority of the city’s population now resides in the west of the city.
In the recently revealed council documents, veteran Labor councillor Pierre Esber, who became Parramatta’s Lord Mayor in September, states that the “City of Parramatta has an untapped opportunity to expand our presence as a legal centre”.
“Our advocacy seeks to guarantee that our court and legal services fulfill the requirements of our expanding community, facilitating increased accessibility to talent, resources, and justice,” states Esber.
“Sydney is absorbing the bulk of Greater Sydney’s population growth, so enticing the suite of justice services closer to the people has many benefits” is the central claim of his argument.
He specifically mentions how the change is “good for equity and accessibility reasons.”
Continued westward trend
The argument for moving more legal services out of the CBD is strengthened by the council’s emphasis on the already established population trend toward the west.
Western Sydney is currently home to over two million people, and over the next 20 years, that figure is expected to rise to over three million. As a result of newly announced housing schemes like the state-led rezoning of Parramatta’s Church Street North precinct in an effort to address long-term housing supply challenges, the city’s population is predicted to double to 500,000 people in that period. In order to create room for tens of thousands of additional residences, Rosehill Racecourse is also undergoing a highly publicized renovation.
Most legal services are still provided in the CBD, despite the optimistic demographic forecast for the west.
The CBD has twice as many courts as Parramatta, and the city has 16,000 legal service employment compared to Parramatta’s 1,000, according to the council. According to the article, most highly compensated legal professionals continue to work out of central Sydney, where 80% of barristers are based.
According to the council, “growth and capacity to serve are constantly strained by this gap in resourcing, including the number of judges.”
As the population of Sydney continues to increase westward, fair access to justice services becomes increasingly important to the economics and quality of life of the area. There is a chance to geographically distribute things in order to better fit Sydney’s total population distribution given the rate of increase.
The equitable provision of justice services is becoming increasingly important to the liveability and prosperity of the Sydney region as its population continues to spread westward.
An optimistic strategy for clients in western Sydney
The ambitious initiative has the support of Scott Dougall, a partner at Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers, who says it would help many citizens of western Sydney who are in need of legal assistance.
Dougall told LSJ, “The majority of our clients prefer to see us closer to where they live, which is western Sydney.” “Seeing us closer to home allows clients to better accommodate their professional and personal obligations. It is undoubtedly more convenient for them. The majority of our clientele do indicate that they would prefer to meet us in our Parramatta location.
Having legal services anchored in the CBD is particularly difficult for some western Sydney clients, says Aleisha Nair, senior associate at the firm and member of the Parramatta Legal and Coalition, a group leading the proposal for an expanded legal precinct. This is especially true for the compensation and personal injury spaces.
According to Nair, she works with “extremely vulnerable” individuals who have suffered catastrophic injuries, which can make traveling into the CBD for court appearances very difficult.
It’s simply not practicable for them to physically attend in person in the CBD; sometimes it takes more than an hour to get there, and they have to be taking strong pain medication.
“It is truly unfair to deny them the chance to attend hearings in Parramatta.”
Additionally, for clients—especially those with mental injuries—”sitting on public transport” to go from the outer suburbs of western Sydney into the CBD may be rather tiring.
Nair continues, “Some clients just aren’t capable of doing it.”
The plan’s supporters also see it as a means of expanding the number of attorneys practicing in the area, which would enhance the balance between their professional and personal lives for lawyers in western Sydney. It would allow more attorneys to regularly practice law closer to their homes.
According to the council, Parramatta only draws 5% of Greater Sydney’s legal positions, compared to 71% in the CBD, even though more attorneys call the city’s west home.
Executive director of Business Western Sydney David Borger tells LSJ that “the legal profession has had a very eastern Sydney view of the world and that’s something we need to confront and make a strong case for why the western suburbs need and deserve a fairer hearing from the justice system.”
“We must face this issue head-on and present compelling evidence for why the western suburbs should receive a more equitable trial from the legal system.”
“Surging metropolis” requires robust legal industry
According to Borger, the leader of the business advocacy group in western Sydney, Parramatta requires additional legal services jobs since it is a “burgeoning metropolis in the geographical heart of Greater Sydney.” According to him, increasing the number of lawyers will “have a strong benefit through more jobs and economic activity” and promote “the diversification of the city’s economy.”
According to the council, an additional 700–1,400 legal positions in Parramatta CBD could generate up to $350 million in value added to the local economy if the NSW Government made an investment to expand the Parramatta Justice Precinct’s service capacity.
“We are persistently advocating to the Attorney-General and the Chief Justice regarding our desires for increased funding for Parramatta’s legal infrastructure as well as an increase in the number of judges sitting and hearing cases in our city,” states Borger.
Since 2013, he has supported similar proposals, stating that there is a compelling need for a “fully functioning” justice system in the region’s center that can meet the needs of the populace in terms of legal services because about one-third of NSW’s population lives in Sydney’s west.
The NSW government’s “six cities vision,” which aims to create quality jobs closer to people’s homes, strengthens Parramatta’s case, according to the council, and names both Parramatta and the CBD as the major locations for services and knowledge occupations in Greater Sydney.
It also states that it makes sense to move more legal services to the area in light of the government’s decision to relocate its Parramatta offices for Sydney Water, the Greater Sydney Commission, the Departments of Planning and Education, Industry and Environment, and NSW Industrial Relations Commission, as well as the majority of the Department of Justice and NSW Police Headquarters.
There are still obstacles to change
Advocates have been calling for an increase in legal services and infrastructure in Parramatta for more than ten years, but they haven’t achieved much. In fact, some of the current plan was first presented to council by the former Lord Mayor Andrew Wilson in 2018. This prompted SGS Economics and Planning to commission a report that examined the demand for legal services in Parramatta as well as the precinct’s benefits to the local economy and services.
According to the council, the investigation discovered that a number of factors, such as the funding of Parramatta courts and “the perception that the Sydney CBD is more prestigious,” contributed to a “cycle” that maintains the majority of law and legal skill in Sydney’s CBD.
The plan’s supporter Nair of Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers believes that the reason it hasn’t gained traction with important decision-makers is because “they need to justify the cost of having at least one equity and one common law judge sitting in Parramatta, from the perspective of the government and the Chief Justice.”
But as she puts it, “it might not need to look like a permanent sitting” in reference to the Supreme Court’s permanent residence in the region.
“It may not be necessary for a judge to attend every day, but hearings can be scheduled in Parramatta, and there is a rotation or casual sitting option.”
When questioned about the state government’s support for the council plan, a spokesman for NSW Attorney General Michael Daley said that two courts in the Parramatta Justice Precinct, which are frequently used by Supreme Court judges, including for terrorist trials, were already assigned to the court.
According to the spokeswoman, “the Court of Criminal Appeal has convened in Parramatta on multiple occasions this past month.”
The previous NSW coalition government “made a significant investment in building up justice infrastructure and increasing access to justice across NSW, including in Parramatta,” according to a spokesman for the NSW Liberal opposition, who also declined to give support.
“The Chief Justice has the authority to list Supreme Court cases in Parramatta,” the spokeswoman stated.
Nevertheless, Parramatta Council is still in favor of the initiative. The council backed the “expansion of the Justice Precinct and legal services industry in Parramatta as the fast-growing geographical heart of Greater Sydney and a global city in its own right,” according to a statement from a council spokeswoman.
“An extension of the precinct would ensure accessibility of legal services to the growing communities of Western Sydney, bring more than 2,200 legal jobs to the area, and boost the local economy by $350 million annually,” the spokesperson told LSJ.
Parramatta Legal and Justice Coalition “continues to advocate for the plan with both the State and Federal Governments,” according to a council statement.
As the proposal moves forward, coalition member Nair calls for a strong push from the local legal community to see it through to completion.
“I believe that attorneys ought to stand up and declare, ‘Hey, we live out west, our clients live out west, and we deserve to be able to provide justice to the Parramatta center of Sydney.'”