New Zealand Law Society - Courts should function to fullest extent they safely can, says Chief Justice

Courts should function to fullest extent they safely can, says Chief Justice

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The heads of bench are agreed that the courts should function to the fullest extent they safely can, in performance of their constitutional role, the Chief Justice, Dame Helen Winkelmann, says.

In a letter to the legal profession, Dame Helen says this is against the background of the fact that the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice and the profession must plan for the possibility that the courts will continue to operate in a restrited environment past 23 April, whether at level 4 or some lesser of different level of restriction.

"We must ensure that the backlog of cases that accrues over this period of limited operation does not overwhelm the courts, leading to delay and injustice. We expect the profession will play its part to the fullest by co-operating with each other and the courts to progress proceedings so far as possible in a restricted environment."

Dame Helen says the judiciary is working with the Ministry of Justice on the processes needed for proceedings that require oral evidence to be heard.

"In crime, the courts are working towards the reinstitution of judge alone trials as soon as possible. We are developing processes which will allow use of remote participation whenever feasible. We will consult the profession about this as soon as we can."

She says the heads of bench have also agreed that while courts priority proceedings will continue to be the first demand on available resources, the courts will hear cases outside those categories to the extent that capacity permits.

These capacity limits relate to registry staffing, as the registry are working with reduced numbers to maintain safe working conditions.

"It is this factor which has inhibited the processing of email filings and the conduct of on the papers work," Dame Helen says. "Nevertheless the profession will see a progressive increase in the courts' ability to do thir usual work over the coming weeks."

Other developments

Dame Helen's letter also announces a number of other developments:

  • In some instances registries in the District Court and High Court did not accept filing of documents which did not relate to priority proceedings. This should not have happened and has now been rectified. The registries of all courts remain open for the filing of documents in accordance with their rules of court.
  • The suspension of jury trials for two months, announced on 18 March, has been extended until Friday, 31 July 2020.
  • The District Court will shortly add suitable pre-trial applications to its work on hearing matters affecting defendants who are in custody on the scheduled hearing date. It will conduct the hearings that are scheduled to the extent that the taking of oral evidence is not required.
  • Police bail procedures will be modified for the alert level 4 period to avoid the need for defendants to appear within the statutory timeframes that would otherwise apply.
  • The ministry has set up VMR capability in 31 District and Family Court courtrooms, to enable participants in hearings to attend by AVL. Counsel with a camera-enabled laptop or phone will be able to access hearings in VMR-enabled courtrooms remotely. Quick reference guides will be made available to counsel in advance of the hearing.
  • The Family Court is now preparing to hear non-witness matters, using VMR technology.
  • The High Court is considering which civil priority proceeding hearings scheduled in the weeks beginning 20 April and following can proceed on the allocated date, using remote technology as appropriate.
  • The Court of Appeal can hear all criminal appeals now. Hearings recommenced on Wednesday, 2 April. It has VMR technology and counsel can attend those hearings remotely. The court expects to resume hearing civil appeals of one day or less after Easter. It is conferring with counsel as to arrangements for hearing longer appeals.
  • The Supreme Court is now supported by VMR technology. It will work with counsel as to how appeals scheduled in the future will be heard.
  • Arrangements are being made to ensure media know of hearings in all courts and can attend hearings, even if they do so remotely.

Dame Helen says New Zealand's court system usually operates through courthouses, and predominately on a face-to-face basis. This has had to change over the last two weeks to a model which makes far greater use of technology to reduce in-person attendance at courthouses and in hearings.

"My expectation is that once we are through the challenges that COVID-19 has presented, we will return to justice that is administered predominately in-person and from courthouses," she says. "The courthouses in the cities and towns of New ZXealand are and will remain important places of justice for our communities."