The committee will collaborate with lawyers, the police, the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Justice
A new multi-agency committee has been formed to combat court delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme that the chief district court judge had put together a committee that is “made up not just of judges, but also of the profession, of [the Department of]Corrections, of the police.”
With jury trials not set to resume until August even though the alert level is down to 1, the courts are dealing with a massive backlog, with roughly 60,000 proceedings still in the pipeline.
“We had already resolved that change was needed. There were many things telling us that people at the margins of our society were not accessing the protection of the law they needed,” Winkelmann said. “The cost of litigation is so high, and that is one of the major barriers to accessing our courts. So is the lack of knowledge—if you don't know your rights, the court system can seem very complex.”
This complex court system has contributed to the backlog, especially in the district court. Before New Zealand went into its COVID-19-imposed lockdown, 21 district court judges had been appointed to the bench to reduce the existing bottleneck.
“Every delay in our system is something we should all regret. This pandemic has hit a system which already had a large backlog,” Winkelmann said. “The starting point is what's already under way, which is to reduce churn. If you reduce the number of court events per proceeding, you reduce the amount of times you drag people into courts for no purpose, then you increase the ability of the court to reduce the backlog.”
The number of prisoners in remand within the country’s prisons is a major factor in needing to move proceedings forward at a faster pace.
“The amount of people in remand in prison is unacceptable. Often they are not even convicted and are simply awaiting trial—they don't have access to rehabilitation so they can often be sentenced and released immediately. This should be a great concern to all of us as a society,” Winkelmann said.
She also said that the transition from paper-based trial documents to a digital model would be addressed gradually.
“There are no legal barriers to us having a properly functioning digital operating model but it is an extremely hard thing to achieve,” Winkelmann said. “What the judiciary has learnt along with the Ministry of Justice is the best solution to finding a digital operating model is small steps, which is what we are working through.”