Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann said investing in the courts’ transition from a paper-based operating model to a digital operating model is a “high priority”. Photo / Provided
For the first time in more than two decades, the nation’s chief justice has revealed insight into how the nation’s courts operate.
In her inaugural report, Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann worries that innocent people are spending too much time behind bars in pretrial detention and that some defendants are dragging out their pleas so they don’t have to spend time in jail.
The questions are raised in his report for the period from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021 as the country dealt with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but before the crippling spread of Omicron this year.
Winkelmann discusses current challenges facing the courts and how the judiciary is responding to them.
Winkelmann was joined by High Court Chief Justice Susan Thomas and District Court Chief Justice Heemi Taumaunu in a media briefing this afternoon.
Taumaunu said the district courts had done well in handling the Omicron outbreak so far this year, with most trials ongoing, however, he said it was unlikely to continue any longer. long given the number of illnesses affecting the public and staff.
“While some disruptions continue, adjournments and rescheduling of cases are significantly lower than in previous restrictions, around 100 per day compared to 600-700 per day in previous alert level sessions.”
The number of active criminal cases has fallen by around 5% since January, he said, due to the courts’ ability to resolve cases at “pre-Delta levels”.
Winkelmann said the protests in Wellington, which ended in fire on Wednesday, were ‘very disruptive’ to proceedings in the city, effectively shutting down the Court of Appeal while the High Court tried to continue hearings by transferring some to the Supreme Court. building.
“We were concerned about [the protests] because the courts are a fundamental part of our constitutional order and the judiciary was very concerned to see them so closed by this protest action.”
She said they would resolve the backlog caused by the pandemic.
“We plan to fully recover. The story will be different between different courts. The High Court has been able to bounce back much faster than the District Court since the lockdown last year… to some extent we are committed to that, we don’t know where this pandemic is going to take us and I have to keep changing our plans.”
Eliminating the backlog that was purchased in the pandemic was fundamental and would require “new thinking”.
Justice, Welfare, and a Personal Inquiry
The annual report revealed a outline of the men and women who are sitting on the bench. A survey of 258 of 312 judges found the majority were Pākehā, 60% were male, 3.5% identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, 24% said they practiced a religion and 12% had some form of disability .
In terms of well-being, the district court launched a well-being framework, Mauri Tū | Judicial Wellness Program]following the non-suspicious death of Judge Robert Runayne in January 2020. The program expanded confidential health and counseling services and established a pastoral response protocol for judges in need of a urgent support, including critical incident and trauma support.
Legal delays and increasingly late guilty pleas
The report found that there were “many causes” of court delays over the past two years, one of which was in part due to offenders entering “increasingly late guilty pleas, which which disrupts workload planning and wastes judicial resources”.
The number of defendants choosing jury trials had also increased – one reason was that it was “more favorable to the defendants”.
Most civil court work had been unaffected by Covid, while “almost all” Court of Appeal hearings had been conducted via video links to other higher courts.
Although it has been “extremely disruptive”, the pandemic has taught courts new ways to deliver justice remotely, leading to efficiency and greater access to justice.
While the number of defendants has fallen by 20%, from around 3,600 in 2019 to just over 2,900 in 2021, the wait time for people behind bars has increased.
This was “problematic”, wrote Winkelmann, because some defendants will not be convicted at trial and therefore innocent people would spend time in jail, while many would not end up receiving a non-custodial sentence.
Overrepresentation of Maori
Winkelmann says Maori are “grossly overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice system”.
Over the past century, the percentage of the Maori prison population has increased from less than 5% in 1921 to over 50% in 2021.
There was no equivalent data over such a long period, but contemporary data from 2021 showed that Maori accounted for 50% of those prosecuted for offenses punishable by imprisonment, 52% of those convicted and sentenced for offenses punishable by imprisonment and 64% of those sentenced to imprisonment.
Complex and intersecting issues have contributed to this overrepresentation, she said, including colonization and intergenerational trauma.
“The answers do not lie within the justice system alone… nevertheless, the justice system… must therefore play its part in addressing this.”
High recidivism rates
Recidivism was a pressing issue for the courts and society, Winkelmann says.
“Within two years of their release, about 40% of people released from prison are reincarcerated.
“These people are also among the approximately 60% of former prisoners who are again sentenced to a correctional sentence.”
Research here and abroad has shown an increased likelihood of imprisonment for children of offenders.
Winkelmann said there was a ‘pressing need’ for investment in the legal aid system as it had not been reviewed since 2008, when the amount paid to lawyers was last processed in 2016 .
“These thresholds, along with the fees paid to legal aid providers, have not kept up with cost and wage inflation.”
“Substantial changes” are afoot in the civil justice framework and four key proposals are listed, some of which will require legislative changes.
These proposals were; expanding the role of the Litigation Court, including covering claims up to $50,000, creating a senior civil list judge, introducing associate judges and part-time clerks in the district court, and a new framework that simplifies the management of cases and the hearing of civil disputes in the High Court.
A ‘number’ of court initiatives have been taken within the family court to improve the court experience in the hope that ‘those who have been victims of domestic violence feel both physically and psychologically safe’ .
The number of young offenders has dropped dramatically since its inception in 1989, from around 10,000 to 978 aged 10 to 16 for the year ending June 2021.
The youth court appearance rate has decreased by 68% over the past 10 years to 2021, while the proportion of young offenders has decreased by 64%.
A Young Adult Role Court, for ages 18-25, was established at Porirua District Court in early 2020 and officially launched on July 31, 2020.
The Coroner’s Court continues to face resource challenges due to difficulties in filling vacancies caused by retirements and the appointment of coroners to other benches.
Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall identified proposals to address caseload issues in a May 2021 document to reduce wait times for hearings and decisions.
Eight relief coroners were appointed in March 2020 but, in August of the same year, six other coroners retired or changed jobs.
Maori Land Court
Significant changes were made to the Court’s jurisdictional legislation in February 2021, including the ability to hear applications for family protection and testamentary promises and the ability for clerks to decide certain simple and uncontested questions.
Te Puni Kokiri [Ministry of Māori Development] will consider further reforms this year.
Using remote technology whenever possible would also be a priority.
There has been no backlog during Covid, however, there have been delays in prosecution work which is being heard by a jury.
Court of Appeal
The court lost seven sitting days in 2020 due to Covid-19, but none in 2021.
This resulted in both positives and negatives.
One of the negatives “has been the decrease in audience participation as access to observe hearings remotely requires a link request, however, such requests are easily granted”.
On the other hand, in a future post-Covid environment, remote technology would be more easily used, especially for short audiences, otherwise requiring long travels.
The court endeavored to process the cases in a timely manner, however, few Covid-19 related cases went to court due to a lack of judicial guidance from the labor court and the labor court. appeal on important matters relating to the employer. /employee obligations during the pandemic.