The physical accessibility of the justice system is an element of the access to justice debate that often goes unconsidered – by the able-bodied, at least, who have no difficulties walking up stairs to a courthouse reception, or using a conventional loo.
But physical accessibility is an essential prerequisite for a fair and functioning justice system built on an assumption of equality under the rule of law.
The Ministry of Justice’s general manager of property Fraser Gibbs says courthouses, as public buildings, are required by the Building Act to provide access and facilities for people with disabilities, including designated car parks, and accessible entrances, toilets and public counters.
“This is a requirement for all buildings built since 2004,” he says. “For existing buildings, the requirement to meet the standard in the Building Code is triggered whenever alterations that require a building consent are undertaken.”
With rare exceptions, Ministry of Justice facilities, such as courts, tribunals and other administrative offices, provide disabled access, he says.
However, many buildings used by the justice sector are more than 50 years old, and several have heritage listing. These do not always have the same level of access and facilities as newer buildings. As upgrades are undertaken, for example the recent strengthening of the Masterton Court, and as new facilities are built, for example the extension to the Manukau Courthouse and the construction of the Christchurch justice and emergency services precinct, full disabled facilities are being progressively implemented, Mr Gibbs says.
Appearing in, but not visiting court
Physical distance, the fact that a witness or party to a proceeding does not reside in close proximity to a courthouse, can be a barrier to accessing justice. Courthouses in smaller regions are often only open one day a week, like many rural police stations, because there are only so many judges to do the rounds. Sometimes a witness is crucial to a case, but they are living overseas or are perhaps incarcerated, which makes getting them to court to give evidence a practical problem, of time, cost and efficiency.
Legal technology, like in all other aspects of life, is eliminating barriers like time and distance, to make justice more accessible.
Most obvious and now ubiquitous are online resources dedicated to publishing substantive law, such as nzlii.org.nz, and guidance for parties to proceedings.
The canon of law, despite barriers still existing in the form of expensive database fees, is now infinitely more accessible than when it existed only on library shelves and in the minds of learned practitioners.
Following trial at the country’s largest courthouses, a $27.8 million upgrade and expansion of the audio video links (AVL) between 18 courts, 12 prisons and one psychiatric hospital – the Mason Clinic in Auckland – was completed this year. This allows prisoners and defendants remanded in custody to appear in court without leaving their custodial facility, Ministry of Justice District Court and special jurisdictions deputy secretary Karl Cummins says.
“This increases safety and security for the public and court users, including the prisoners themselves,” he says.
The last court to join the network was Dunedin in May and Waitakere is expected to come online early next year.
“The AVL programme was enabled by the Courts (Remote Participation) Act 2010, which allows the technology to be used for procedural events including list hearings, bail hearings, case reviews and jury trial call overs,” Mr Cummins says.
“There have been 8,721 AVL events in the past 12 months to 30 September,” and the number will grow as court users become more familiar with this technology, he says.
Justice Minister Amy Adams says AVL is helping to improve court scheduling and reducing the time minor but important court appearances take.
“It’s more convenient, cost efficient and safe for everyone, including the prisoners themselves, who no longer have to spend long days travelling or waiting around for what are sometimes brief procedural court appearances.”