Podcast: The Detail

Delayed justice - our courts under pressure

Covid-19 has put more stress on an already backlogged court system, delaying justice, causing more stress for victims and putting incredible pressure on remand facilities. 

This article has been corrected at the request of the courts to more accurately reflect the number of jury trials on the books. 

The Covid-19 lockdown put the brakes on all jury trials in New Zealand, causing a massive backlog of cases in a system already running close to capacity.

But the enforced break had its upsides - and offered an opportunity to take a step back, and examine what improvements could be made to ensure swift access to justice.

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to RNZ court reporter Anneke Smith about the unusual predicament the justice system found itself in, the initiatives to help clear some of the mounting court cases, and ideas for how the process can be sped up in future.

There are two types of criminal trial in New Zealand: those heard by a jury, and those heard by a judge alone.

The type of trial you get depends on the severity of the crime you're accused of: level one and level two offences - for which the maximum penalty ranges from a fine to two years' imprisonment - are generally heard by a judge alone.

Level three offences are more severe - think kidnapping, or aggravated assault - and can be heard by a judge alone or a jury. Level four cases - the most serious - are always jury trials, and always conducted in the high court.

The differences between judge-alone and jury trials are pretty obvious.

In the former, police prosecutors and lawyers gather evidence and present it to the judge, who then makes a determination. In jury trials, the evidence is presented to a jury of 12 men and women - the thinking being that everybody accused of a serious crime has the right to be judged by a group of their peers.

In this situation, a judge's involvement is more analogous to that of a referee, making sure proper procedure is followed.

As you might imagine, jury trials tend to take a lot longer: they tend to be more serious offences, and the selection process for a jury is long and laborious.

They also involve 12 people sitting in close proximity to one another, sometimes for days on end - so, when the lockdown was implemented, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann made the call to halt all jury trials.

That was back in March. At that point, there were 2,500 active jury trials on the books. Now, that number has ballooned out  to more than 3000, and jury trials are only recommencing at the start of August.

RNZ court reporter Anneke Smith says the disruption has been enormous.

"To give a sense of the significance, it hasn't been seen since the Second World War. Nothing has affected our court system so much."

That spurred Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu to establish a subcommittee, made up of representatives including lawyers, police, Corrections workers and the judiciary, to brainstorm some ideas as to how procedure could be streamlined in the future.

They include establishing Saturday hearings; introducing double sessions, so a single courtroom could process multiple cases in a single day; and perhaps integrating more technology into the process through virtual appearances.

Judge Taumaunu says the core point to any change is maintaining a focus on the people involved with the justice system - and to never start to view court cases as mere statistics on a spreadsheet.

"We are talking about people. People who have to come to court to face charges, to give evidence, who have been victims of crime. People are affected, in all sorts of ways, by delay.

"When we talk about backlogs, what we're actually talking about is the time it takes for a person to have their case heard. We are, really, talking about that time being more than is an ideal timeframe for them to have to wait to be heard.

"It's not just about defendants - it's about everyone who's affected by the decisions the courts have to make.

"That's why it's important to address these backlogs. Because at the heart of it is the people and the communities that we serve."

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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