Staff shortages and COVID-19 have contributed to difficulties in setting fixture dates
The judiciary has pitched to counsel measures that can aid in relieving the current pressure on courts.
This pressure, which has hit both District and High Court jurisdictions and affects both civil and criminal cases, was exacerbated by COVID-19, a shortage in court staff and illness brought on by the winter. The judiciary, Ministry of Justice and Corrections discussed the concern with the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa at a legal professional associations meeting and presented the following measures:
- setting reasonable estimates on fixture timeframes
- determine whether witnesses are required to appear in court
- providing early notice on adjournments
- conducting pre-trial call overs to advise on times on unavailability
- identifying pre-trial issues in advance
- coordinating with the court with regard to availability for jury trials
- advising if there are urgent civil matters for the High Court
The judiciary explained to the Law Society that in the scheduling process, courts depend on counsel information; thus, counsel should be “realistic and as accurate as possible about court time estimates, particularly where witnesses are involved,” the Law Society wrote in a news release. Inaccurate time estimates have led to the volume of part-heard civil cases rising as court resources are re-allocated, especially where High Court matters are concerned.
The judiciary recommended that counsel estimates factor in time to read briefs, and that counsel should aim to minimise how much time participants spend in court. In some cases, an admission of facts may be adequate in place of a witness appearance.
There are also instances wherein AVL hearings can be held in place of in-person proceedings to speed up the determination of a matter, since judges can preside regardless of their location. The judiciary called for counsel to advise on whether pre-trial matters can be heard remotely by the first available judge.
Given the limited pool of criminal lawyers, counsel bogged down by multiple jury trial commitments must inform the local jury liaison judge for District Court matters. For High Court matters, however, counsel must be certain that they will be available to attend scheduled trials prior to taking on legal aid assignments.
Corrections also urged lawyers to engage with the department’s prisoner contact team in order to ease the process for frontline staff.