There are few people as in touch with the painful realities faced by those coming to the courts as District Court Judges, Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue has said.
Delivering the 22nd Annual New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Commemorative Address in Dunedin on 15 October, Judge Doogue said every day District Court Judges hear from and speak to victims of crime and broken families; from people suffering addiction and mental illness; and from defendants and victims alike who are the products of the vicious cycles of sexual and family violence.
The theme of her address was "Generations of Disadvantage: A View from the District Court Bench". She said no single agency or department was placed to fully appreciate the multiplicity of overlapping factors.
"No single agency or department truly gets a holistic view of the disadvantaged person. In many respects, as District Court Judges, we do. We have a cradle-to-grave view of society's illnesses."
“The District Court may have a unique long-range vantage point, but we do not pretend we can address this challenge alone. The repeating cycles of disadvantage evident in the District Court may be simultaneously showing up right across New Zealand society in different settings: in our schools, hospitals, workplaces, and welfare agencies.”
"If the District Court and its Judges are to effectively engage in social justice, we cannot do it alone. It will require resources to be allocated strategically across whole of Government to ensure they have a greater impact on the people who come to court. There is an opportunity to drastically improve outcomes for these people if we invest in early, more effective intervention. Given the cyclical nature of disadvantage, this has potential to affect generational change; to decrease the risk of the ‘the system’ producing and reproducing future offenders.
"I am the first to admit that it would require a Rolls Royce funding model to completely transform our justice system. During my time as Chief Judge, I have tried to stretch our judicial resource to places it unfortunately cannot reach. Remedying that is beyond my control but in the District Court, where we get a clear view of the precarious landscape that is the justice system, the corrosive, long-lasting and cyclical influence of disadvantage is now irrefutable."
Judge Doogue said the District Court’s response tries to go some way in addressing disadvantage.
"Cultural competence amongst our Judges; constructively adapting to the upcoming amendments to our care and protection legislation; making greater use of cultural information in respect of children and young people as well as at sentencing; making greater use of whānau, hapū and iwi alternatives to state care and imprisonment as well as solution-focused principles when dealing with young adult offenders; and having a better appreciation of neurodisabilities are all part of this response."
“For the Court to make lifechanging decisions about these people, it should be first attempting to cut through the isolation, hostility and alienation; it should recognise disadvantage and try to understand its influence on those who offend.”
Judge Doogue said the court system needs processes that offer hope to people who may well be at their lowest points; "hope that things which have gone so disastrously wrong will start to come right, no matter how long and arduous the journey toward restoration and rehabilitation".
"In the District Court Judges are uniquely placed to witness the life cycle of family and social breakdown. We cannot genuinely uphold the role of wise adjudicator and decision-maker without having processes that address the growing evidence of the underlying causes of offending. We especially cannot close our eyes and ears merely because it would be inconvenient to justice system timelines and targets.
"The District Court may have a unique long-range vantage point, but we do not pretend we can address this challenge alone. The repeating cycles of disadvantage evident in the District Court may be simultaneously showing up right across New Zealand society in different settings: in our schools, hospitals, workplaces, and welfare agencies. All parts of our communities that intersect with the lives of those spiralling toward conflict with the law have opportunities to intervene. What our specialist courts have demonstrated is that when these groups work together to find solutions and alternatives to traditional responses, then reform and rehabilitation become more than a forlorn hope."