As this issue of LawTalk goes live, the COVID-19 Alert Level is about to go to two.
While this is positive news, we are far from a return to normal with many restrictions still in place. This is another test of the flexibility and adaptability the profession has shown since Level 4 was announced on 25 March. It requires us to continue to rethink the way we do our mahi, and how we can continue to provide access to justice despite constraints on how we can deliver this.
But firstly, I want to acknowledge and thank the outgoing members of our Board: Andrew Logan and Tim Jones for their guidance – and indeed their flexibility and adaptability – over the past four years, particularly during this uniquely challenging time. Tim and Andrew will be staying on for the next six months as observers to assist with Board continuity and transition. In December, David Dunbar stepped in as Wellington observer after Nerissa Barber finished and I thank both of them for their input during their time with the Board. I also want to welcome our new members: Frazer Barton (South Island Vice-President), Arti Chand (Wellington Vice-President) and Jacque Lethbridge (Auckland Vice-President) who I look forward to working with as we navigate our path through COVID-19 and beyond.
The entire profession has been adapting rapidly and there are many questions and issues that will continue to arise around the pandemic. More than 13,000 of you have signed up for our free webinars covering some of the key issues around working under COVID-19. Produced with the support of NZLS CLE, the first three, Working Effectively from Home, Property Matters and Remote witnessing of Documents are now available to watch online.
I was delighted when the Chief Justice, Dame Helen Winkelmann, and five other Heads of Bench agreed to my invitation to take part in a special webinar on 17 April and respond directly to your questions. More than 2200 members of the profession logged in on the day.
We recognise the urgent need for on-going guidance, and we will have more webinars to come.
There’s no doubt the past seven weeks have been challenging and not everyone has welcomed the restrictions on how we operate. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Firstly, these restrictions have meant that to date, no-one has been infected with COVID-19 as a result of their involvement with the courts. That goal remains as we shift to dealing with more court business.
Secondly, as a profession we share one overarching goal – enabling access to justice. Throughout Alert Level 2 and beyond, we need to continue to adapt so we can stay connected with the community we serve – while also prioritising the health of both the profession and the community.
An increasingly pressing issue now is the sheer number of cases to work through and we need to work on our recovery plan as a priority. This ‘backlog’ involves individual people and there is a human cost to the delays.
We as a profession, have learnt and will continue to learn from this experience. Once restrictions are lifted, there’s no question that we need a return to kanohi ki te kanohi: it is integral to our model of justice, which has people at its centre. However, increasing the use of electronic filing and retaining the use of remote technology, where this is appropriate, improves access to the courts and reduces costs. There could well be positive innovations that COVID-19 has fast-tracked.
So, can we retain some good from this extraordinary time? The Chief Justice was asked this question during our recent webinar and I had the opportunity to ask her this again in a further interview which is included in this edition of LawTalk. But I will end with her first response at the webinar: “What we want to end up with is a system of justice that takes the good of the old and the new, that retains the values of openness and fairness and respect for human dignity [so] that we arrive at a system of justice which is best designed to provide all with access to the protection of the law in our Courts’’.
For the most up-to-date information on the operation of the courts, go to www.courtsofnz.govt.nz
Tiana Epati, President, New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa