Good information should be the starting point for determining all matters that come before the courts.
People in positions of authority tasked with making hefty, sometimes life-changing or life-saving decisions and whether to place restrictions on individual freedoms need access to as much quality information as possible before reaching those decisions.
It is particularly important when dealing with allegations of violence, and where children and families are involved or could be harmed.
That is why judges of the District Courts are embracing efforts to improve the scope and quality of information they receive when considering bail applications where there may be a potential impact on the safety of family members.
Too often the various Police or court records, reports and documents do not individually indicate the level of risk to family members from a defendant seeking bail. A judge will not necessarily know about any or all prior reports or incidents of family violence which may have brought a defendant to the notice of Police or social agencies previously.
When judges are relying on all the information that is available to make sound and safe decisions, at the moment it is not always on hand because it is fragmented and held in different parts of the justice system.
However, if the information is gathered together comprehensively into a single dossier or pack, it can give judges a much fuller picture of what level of risk they are dealing with.
Since last September, Judge John Walker has been leading a pilot of a “Judge’s Pack” containing all relevant material of this nature in Porirua, and a parallel pilot has been going in Christchurch led by Judge Paul Kellar.
The approach aims to gather as much information as possible on a defendant’s family violence history into a single bundle for judges to consult when considering both opposed and unopposed bail applications.
The packs feature Family Violence Summary Reports which give judges access to information held by Police on a defendant’s criminal and family violence history. These flag any prior family violence records, all police call-outs, safety orders, protection orders and any breaches.
The packs also include victims’ views on bail and information about Care of Children Act 2004 proceedings in all family violence bail hearings.
I was pleased, but not altogether surprised, to hear the pilot has been a success. It makes perfect sense that making good quality information more easily available in a cohesive, joined-up way will lead to better outcomes.
Therefore, from the beginning of this month, with the co-operation of the Ministry of Justice and Police, the Judge’s Pack bail pilot is being extended to Wellington and Northland, taking in the Hutt Valley, Masterton, Kaikohe and Kaitaia District Courts as well as Wellington City and Whangarei.
The initiative demonstrates what can be achieved when all participants in the justice system work closely together to bridge gaps in information and knowledge.
Making a difference
Judges tell me it is making a difference to the fair and safe administration of justice, and that the extra effort by everyone involved such as Police prosecutors and court staff is paying off.
I do not underestimate the extra demands and time involved in collating the packs to a high standard. Judges appreciate that providing the information places extra burdens on the system, and on all those involved in administering justice, and are grateful for their commitment and co-operation.
But they also report the pack is proving its worth time and time again when on the limited information previously available the risk to a victim appeared to be low but the additional information provided by the process has painted an entirely different picture. And how do you put a price on balancing the interests of the safety of victims?
In its last annual report, the Family Violence Death Review Committee expressed support for the initiative and its contribution to reducing information fragmentation in the criminal justice system.
The Law Commission, in its recent report on the law relating to strangulation, noted that if the Judge’s Pack pilot is expanded nationally it will provide significantly more relevant information to judges making decisions in family violence circumstances.
With patience, determination and goodwill on everyone’s part, I believe this latest rollout of the Judge’s Pack stands every chance of repeating the success of the pilot’s first stage.
The road will not be entirely smooth and there is sure to be fine-tuning required, but in time I hope District Courts across New Zealand will be using the packs.
Equipping judges with a more complete picture in this way to assist decision-making and keep people safe from harm is a significant measure all those involved in the courts can take together to help address New Zealand’s disturbing family violence statistics.