The District Courts are about to pilot a specialist court for jury trials in sexual violence cases. The pilot will be based in Whangarei and Auckland and is scheduled to start in December this year.
Writing in the latest issue of the New Zealand Law Society's magazine LawTalk, Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue says her office has been working with a project team from the Ministry of Justice for most of this year, exploring the feasibility and operational impact of establishing a dedicated sexual violence court.
“It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the New Zealand public expects the justice system to improve the way it responds to people who rely on it to resolve sexual violence allegations,” Judge Doogue says.
Entry criteria to the pilot will be all Category 3 sexual violence cases proceeding to jury trial in Whangarei and Auckland District Courts and from their satellite courts. Judge Doogue says these venues were selected because they “represent a mix of urban and provincial caseload, and provide enough volume for a pilot sample”.
The pilot will focus on where judges can have the most impact, including best practice in pre-trial case management and more specialised education.
“I hope these approaches will foster more discipline in trial processes and preparation and therefore more timely disposal of cases. In turn, this stands to improve the court experience by reducing delay and uncertainty for all those involved, especially children and vulnerable witnesses,” Judge Doogue says.
Judge Doogue says although the pilot is relatively modest in ambition, it has the potential to make a significant contribution.
“It will test how much process improvements can lessen trauma for participants and, just as importantly, indicate whether other supplementary measures will be required to achieve this.”
A specialist court for sexual violence cases was one of the recommendations made by the Law Commission in its 2015 report The Justice Response to Victims of Sexual Violence: Criminal Trials and Alternative Processes. However, Judge Doogue says not all of the Law Commission’s recommendations could be accommodated in the pilot, which has to work within existing laws. Some of the suggestions which can’t be implemented include having accredited prosecutors, competence requirements for defence counsel, and alternative ways to give and cross-examine evidence.
The 20 judges involved in the pilot will receive training in January 2017. This training will be extended to all District Court trial judges late next year through the Institute of Judicial Studies. The education programme is designed to upskill judges on the complexities of sexual violence matters and update them on latest research.
Guidelines for best practice
Judge Doogue says the pilot’s Best Practice Guidelines, which were drawn up for judges by a governance board of senior jury trial judges, do not attempt to impose charter-type restrictions on counsel.
“On this, I want to reassure all litigators that the pilot emphatically does not depart from Bill of Rights principles relating to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and the right to present a defence and examine a witness.”
The guidelines are designed to reduce pre-trial delay and to ensure flexible, workable trial arrangements. For a full list of guidelines, see issue 899 of LawTalk.