New Zealand Law Society - Minister of Justice outlines priorities

Minister of Justice outlines priorities

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Judith Collins
Judith Collins

Lots of lawyers have lots of really good ideas on how to improve the justice system, Justice Minister Judith Collins says.

“I am very keen to work with the legal profession,” she said, “because what I find when I talk to lawyers is that most of them have a very good idea of how to improve things.

“They want to be listened to, and I want to listen.”

When asked if that meant she would be asking lawyers how money could be saved in the justice sector, Ms Collins says: “Most lawyers know how to save money”.

She has “some ideas” on the question, and is talking with the Law Society and others, including the New Zealand Bar Association, about some of these ideas that she wants to put into practice.

“What we need to understand is that sometimes it’s around things like processes. Sometimes it’s around the way in which we impose administration costs on lawyers so, for instance, one of the things I think we can do is look in terms of things like legal aid and say ‘how can we stop the administration being such a pain in the neck for people?’

“I certainly remember it being a pain in the neck and very costly.”

 “We also know that sometimes there are processes that were required by a court 20 years ago and no one’s ever changed it. These processes are time-consuming, they are not effective and they don’t lead to any better outcomes, but that was the way it was done.

“We are really keen to talk to the judiciary, too, about some of the ways they think we can save time and … as lawyers know, time is money.”

One thing she is “really keen to do”, she says, “is to make sure that the Ministry of Justice works in a way which is better with the legal profession and the judiciary. And I am concerned to make sure that we see the legal profession and the judiciary as part of the justice sector rather than government versus profession. That’s not particularly helpful, in my opinion, for getting the best outcomes for people who have to use the sector.”

Work in that area this year is going to be a “big focus” for her, Ms Collins says.

Justice sector leadership

As Justice Minister, Ms Collins now has the sector leadership role, and that includes Police, Corrections, the Serious Fraud Office, Attorney-General, Crown Law and Courts.

“So there’s an emphasis on living within the justice sector’s budget.” It is also about making the best use of not just money, but people, buildings and computer systems to be as effective and as accessible as possible.

That focus on accessibility will be very much around use of technology and freeing up ways to do things, and there may well be some papers and discussion in this area.

Family Courts review

An example of that, Ms Collins says, lies in the work being done on the Family Courts.

“How do we best meet the needs of children in the Family Court? Are we doing so at the moment?”

Having practised for more than 20 years before she came into Parliament “I do actually have some knowledge of these things and my view, very firmly is that in some cases … the Family Court and the systems that were built around it have not always worked in the best interests of children.

“And the resolution of relationship issues has not always been best served by charging into court. I know there are a lot of practitioners who feel that and I know there are plenty of judges who feel that too.

“So I am very keen to work with them following this review of the Family Court to see how we can actually come up with a system that is going to be better focused on what the Family Court was first set up to do.”

Earthquake lessons

The justice sector would be learning from Christchurch after the earthquake “where we found that we didn’t have to have different buildings for various things”, the Minister says.

Corrections, the police and courts worked very well together following the earthquake and all the agencies found the experience of working together “better than working in silos”.

The chief executives of those organisations are now looking at how they could use and replicate this around the country with the aim of making justice more accessible to people.

Commercial disputes

The Minister talked about the increasing number of commercial disputes being played out in an informal justice system, including arbitrations and mediations.

Commercial litigants often see the process as too expensive, too unsure and very adversarial, while in a mediation they had input into what was going to happen and their privacy was protected.

That was something they valued. The less adversarial approach meant there was a better prospect that the parties could continue doing business after the dispute was resolved.

“I’m not going to be the person who says you can’t have arbitrations and mediations,” she says.

However, the decrease in commercial dispute going to court was a problem in that “we have a decreasing amount of case law coming into the courts.”

As well as creating its own uncertainty for other commercial players, it was not allowing the fulfilment of one of the roles of courts “which is actually to find certainty and clarity around the interpretation of statute. So I think that’s an issue that we need to address in some way.”

Quality of legal services

There are, Ms Collins says, questions around quality of service in the legal profession, “and that’s an issue that we take very seriously.

“I’ve spoken to the New Zealand Law Society about the complaints process, how that’s working, some of the issues that have been raised with me by both practitioners and by clients of practitioners.” And the Law Society was reporting to her on what it was doing.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we maintain confidence in the legal profession and the quality of the service provided to clients who, in many cases, are not well placed to judge the quality of the service that they are getting.”

Access to justice

Another area was providing people with better access to legal advice, particularly people who don’t have the money to pay for advice, so that “at least they are put in the right direction”.

The service “might be” a 24-7 or a 14 hours a day line that people can go to for help.

This agenda, Ms Collins says, is a big one, and it is also running alongside other issues, such as around 35 pieces of legislation she has at the moment. This includes the Search and Surveillance Bill, which she must get through in the next few weeks “or else the police have got to turn off all the cameras they’ve got watching methamphetamine labs, so it’s important to do that as well.”

This article was published in LawTalk 792, 30 March 2012, page 20.

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