Pioneering study shows speed isn’t everything in High Court civil cases

Civil cases pass through the High Court fairly swiftly, but a certain class of cases takes significantly longer

Pioneering study shows speed isn’t everything in High Court civil cases
A study into High Court civil cases has found that cases pass through the system fairly swiftly, but also shows that speed isn’t everything.

In a pioneering study, University of Otago researchers analysed where delays in High Court civil cases might be originating from. The study, which was funded by New Zealand Law Foundation, used data from the Ministry of Justice, the courts, and interviews of people involved in the justice system to look at ways to improve the system.

On average, High Court cases are concluded in 191 days, or just over six months, the study found. However, one particular class of cases, specifically general proceedings, averaged 13 months in the system.

Judges, lawyers, and court staff respondents said that they still considered this within the 12-to-24-month time-frame they consider acceptable for general proceedings. However, among this class, 18% of cases took more than two years to conclude. General proceedings account for 29% of the High Court’s caseload.

Nonetheless, the study also showed that case length is not everything.

“You have to look much deeper to see what is really happening. It might be good that a case is short or it might be unjust, as it only ended because one party ran out of money. A long case might be bad for the litigants or there might be good reasons for the time passing, like waiting for remedial work to be done on a property,” said Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin, director of the University of Otago Legal Issues Centre and lead author of the study.

“We have to be more sophisticated in thinking about what we want from the justice system. Speed is one important goal, but so is fairness and justice and keeping down cost,” she said.

Causes and solutions

The study found several reasons for delays. Particularly concerning is the lack of judicial time to promptly hear interlocutory and substantive fixtures and deliver judgments, the researchers said.  The study, co-authored by Dr Bridget Irvine, Kayla Stewart and Professor Mark Henaghan, also found that case progression is delayed by the unavailability of litigation participants, particularly experts.

Rare registry errors also delay cases, the study said. The behaviour of any of the participants in litigation, which includes litigants, lawyers, witnesses, court staff, and judges, an also affect the pace of cases, the researchers wrote.

Nonetheless, some steps could be taken to improve the pace of justice. The study recommends earlier identification of issues in dispute, greater inclusion of litigants earlier in the process, improving the timing and methods of eliciting witness evidence, considering judicial specialisation, protecting judgment-writing time, and harnessing the benefits of modern technology.

Further research is needed into efforts to lower or better plan legal representation costs. There is also an urgent need to improve data about court users, their representation status, and how their cases proceed, the study found.

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