New Zealand Law Society - Courts Minister Chester Borrows looks forward

Courts Minister Chester Borrows looks forward

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Chester Borrows
Chester Borrows

From structure to language, we need a more simplified, context-driven court system.

Whether experienced by those in the legal profession, bit players (players such as complainants, defendants and witnesses) or the general public, our court system needs to be better understood.

This is the perspective of Chester Borrows, Minister for Courts, whose ideas for his portfolio stem from 35 years of “knocking around the courts”.

Previously a police officer, detective, lawyer and now Member of Parliament, Mr Borrows thinks he is well placed to make changes to the courts so that they are operating effectively in the interest of justice for everyone in society.

“The language we use in our courts is laden with jargon and needs to be simplified in order to be understood for people from all diversities. The structure of where people stand in court rooms needs a big rethink too.

“Legal speak is a foreign language to many. The hearing may as well be conducted in Mandarin. This is not a good way for a justice system to operate,” Mr Borrows says.

He says that we need to challenge what we do, how we do it and who we do it to in the courts. Taking justice back out into the community is an avenue being investigated to meet this end.

“It’s about evaluating how comfortable people are in courts who only use it sporadically. As lawyers, judges or police officers, we are there all the time so are used to the processes and tradition.

“We need to draw on the way in which community interest groups, maraes and churches work to make our processes more relevant,” he says.

When offenders are surrounded by others in the community, the relevance of their actions is reinforced and resolutions run deeper, Mr Borrows says.

He is looking forward to the evaluation of Rangatahi courts and that Ngā Hau e Whā Marae in Christchurch established after the earthquakes.

“Anecdotally, these types of courts seem to be working well, but need further evaluation.

“I think we need to always question the business of justice and how applicable it is to the times in which we live,” Mr Borrows says.

The general shape of our courts is better than most countries, Mr Borrows asserts, though there is enormous room for improvement, especially in areas like restorative justice.

“We need to enable restorative justice more pre-sentence. This works great in the youth court, but if it works so well here, it would work similarly well for people of all ages.

“It’s all about being smart on crime to reduce reoffending. If we accept that there are drivers of crime, then we need to act earlier to put roadblocks on the path to crime. Current we only do this in court post-sentence,” he says.

The priority of the government, explains Mr Borrows, is not to just churn through cases; it’s about applying an appropriate speed of justice that makes courts effective.

“There are significant lag times between indictment and hearings, but it’s not necessarily ‘the faster the better’ approach that we are after. A rush decision is seldom as good as a fairly informed decision. We need to do things at an appropriate pace.”

Economic restraints that are prevalent across government departments also exist in court management. Mr Borrows indicates that he is looking into managing courts on a regional basis rather than court by court.

Audio visual links between courts and users can be cost effective in this respect.

“There is the potential for an online judge roster and to look at virtual courts where people would Skype in, for example. This would work in simple cases and have the potential to reduce court time.

“There is always room to improve, it’s the need and the how. But there are economic limitations. We have to efficiently use public money and I think the National government is under the microscope in this respect more so than any government before.”

This article was published in LawTalk 793, 13 April 2012, page 7

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