New Zealand Law Society - Court on the Chathams

Court on the Chathams

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Chatham Islands courthouse
The District Court in Waitangi, the largest town in the Chatham Islands. The building also houses the local Police station.

When does a day amount to a week? It’s not a trick question, and the answer lies in court sessions on the Chatham Islands, the remote archipelago 650km from mainland New Zealand.

District Court sessions take place every three months.

All of those involved fly out from Wellington on Monday afternoon, with the court hearing being held the following day. In summer the return flight is on Wednesday; but in autumn and winter no-one can fly back to the North Island until the Friday, unless they’re willing to take a flight first to Auckland on Thursday.

The Judge, registrar, duty solicitor, prosecutor and a probation officer all head off on the same plane, as can any police witnesses.

“If you’re there in May or August you’re there all week,” says Andrew Davie, a partner at Wellington firm Treadwells, who has been one of the rotating duty solicitors since May 2003.

The roster is arranged by Wellington criminal lawyer Mike Antunovic.

“I can’t remember how I got involved in it first,” says Mr Davie. “It’s always been run through Wellington solicitors, and the role is shared around but I’ve been doing a lot of it in recent years.”

Sessions can be busy

The Chathams’ population numbers 600, according to the 2013 Census, but the court sessions can be busy.

“At the most recent session, in February, there were 25 cases in the District Court, so that was a particularly busy day. We were flat out, and there was a lengthy sentencing on that day too.”

He says drink-driving is the most common offence as well as taking more fish than the legal amount, and firearms offences. “There could be minor assault too, so it is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. It’s like another day in court, all sorts of different cases.”

One unusual situation occurred in February, where “the police certainly did not oppose a limited licence application for the Sky repairman on the island. The islanders enjoy their Sky television!”.

Any serious cases are heard in Wellington, such as when one local slashed another man on Pitt Island, resulting in the victim being airlifted to Hawke’s Bay Hospital for treatment.

“That guy (the suspect) was brought straight to New Zealand as they call it over there; anyone suspected of being involved in a serious crime is flown out straight away,” Mr Davie says.

Small but functional

The building is small but manages to contain all the main functions necessary for normal justice to be carried out.

“It’s a tiny court, and it’s attached to the police station. It’s got a law library with statutes, and it has a duty solicitor’s room, which is as good as any court, and also doubles as the EBA room, for police breath-testing. The Judge has a decent sized room, and there’s probably about 20 seats for the public, so while it is small it isn’t miniscule,” he says.

On the same day as the District Court is held, any Family Court, Disputes Tribunal and Civil Jurisdiction Court matters are also taken care of.

Mr Davie has also dealt with Orders for Examination and Relationship Property matters, and acted as Lawyer for Child on the islands.

“I had to drive out to Kaingaroa once, and that’s an hour drive, people don’t realise how big the island is, it’s not easy to get around and the roads aren’t great.”

Occasionally, weather or other problems in Wellington can affect the court work.

“One August, we sat there (in the airport) all afternoon and they cancelled the flight at half past five and we all just went home.” That resulted in all cases being held over until the next court day, three months later.

There is no cellphone coverage, though there is a public telephone box in Waitangi. But being taken out of the office for several working days doesn’t faze Mr Davie.

“Oh, it’s fun. It’s out of the office, it’s somewhere different, you come back with some fish, hopefully some crays, so it’s good, I really enjoy it.

“You are paid as duty solicitor but you’re not going to get rich going to the Chathams, it is modest pay.”

Mr Davie says the small police team are very effective in covering a large land mass over the two inhabited islands.

“There’s a husband and wife team there at the moment, both of them are cops and they do a really good job.”

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