New Zealand Law Society - Thoughts from the departing Secretary for Justice

Thoughts from the departing Secretary for Justice

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Andrew Bridgman
Andrew Bridgman

Andrew Bridgman has been Secretary for Justice and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice since 2011. He will leave this role on 31 January 2019 to move to the Ministry of Defence as Secretary of Defence and Chief Executive (from 1 July 2019). LawTalk talked to Mr Bridgman about his time as the head of the agency which leads our justice system.

As Secretary for Justice, what are the key issues you are facing today?

Probably the most public issue is around the reforms to the criminal justice system. And that’s around safety, it’s around how people are held accountable and it’s around how effective the institutions are at preventing crime – but also rehabilitating people that go into the prison system so that they don’t offend going forward and they become productive members of the community.

Another area that has consumed a lot of my time is the court system. The issue has been how do you ensure that the court system is fit for purpose going into the future, how do you ensure that its integrity is retained with all of the pressures that it has and how do you ensure it responds to the changing environment and the changing demands. It’s a system that relies on public confidence and therefore is a system that the public need to see themselves in; they need to have an affinity with it.

As Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice, what are the biggest issues in front of you?

It’s a great department. I call it a justice conglomerate – we have a number of different roles and functions from supporting the courts to supporting specialist courts like Coroners, Environment Courts, Treaty Settlements. We picked up the portfolio of Crown/Māori relations, we’ve got the Public Defence Service which is the largest criminal law firm in New Zealand, we have policy and we also lead the justice sector in terms of co-ordination. So you’ve got a large bandwidth of functions which means a huge variety of people you employ to carry out those functions – people ranging from judges’ clerks right through to bailiffs, to policy analysts to financial analysts. And the challenge – I mean it in a positive, rewarding sense – is to bring us all together with a common purpose. There are lots of different functions, lots of different people, lots of different backgrounds, but what unifies us is that we all provide justice services and we’re here for the people of New Zealand who need those services. And that, to me, is a very energising, positive challenge.

How big a problem for the ministry is overcoming some of the barriers to justice which people encounter?

I think access to justice always deserves a big conversation. Because justice is a foundation of our society, access to justice is critical because without it you don’t have a meaningful justice system. But I think there are many limbs to access to justice and we really need to dissect that.

Access to justice is often looked at through the lens of money. That’s one part of it, and an important part. But we’ve also got to be very honest about what the money equation is. It’s not, as a lot of people would like to purport, that court fees or lack of legal aid are an impediment to access to justice. They contribute to it, but there are a lot of other things that are impediments. Lawyers’ fees, for instance, are the biggest contribution to the cost of cases. So, you’ve got legal aid on the one hand but even people that have good salaries still may not be able to afford a lawyer. I think that’s a real burning question for the legal profession.

You’ve got understandability. To what extent is the legal and the court system understandable? Is the language we use understandable? That’s an access to justice issue because if people can’t understand the language we’re using, they can’t understand the process. And they’re not going to have an affinity with it and they’re not necessarily going to use it.

Timing is a big issue. We’ve found through our data that’s an impediment to access to justice as often people can give up because things take too long. If they give up, they’re not getting access to justice and they’re giving up in some instances because they’ve turned up and the case isn’t going to go ahead or it’s taking too long in the system.

There are many, many tentacles in the concept of access to justice. I think we need to look at all of them to really understand the impediments to the ordinary person to enter and to go through the justice system. Money’s part of it, but it’s certainly not all of it.

And how much of the ministry’s role is it to own that and take it forward?

I think the ministry does have a role in trying to bring together a wider conversation on things like access to justice and on how the system works to get it.

I think the New Zealand court system has some outstanding strengths in terms of the competency of the institutions that are involved and the professionals. So when you look at the judiciary, when you look at the police force, when you look at the Bar, when you look at the corrections service, all of these institutions involved in the court system I think are world class. We all have our own specific roles and a lot of these roles are enveloped in the concept of independence in decision-making, which is really important. But I think where we need to do a lot of work is around our interdependence. For the system to work more, we need to focus more on our interdependence in going forward. It’s collaboration that will make this a much more effective system; it’s knowing how our decisions affect other parties in the system.

What are the ways of progressing that?

We’ve been doing a lot of work on data and through that we can see how our decisions affect other people in the system and ultimately the people that are here for the system. Data doesn’t solve all of the problems, but it does show you, for instance, that cases go through in Dunedin a lot more quickly than they do in Manukau – and while there are size differences, there is no fundamental reason why that should be the case. Data shows us the big roadblocks to cases being dealt with more efficiently and more effectively, and the biggest roadblock is adjournments. It shows us where those adjournments are coming from and that leads to the question of ‘why is that happening’ and, more importantly, ‘what can we do to solve it’?

Rather than running a system on anecdote, which we historically have done – which is a bit ironic given the business we’re in – it is running it based on evidence. And the other thing is just being a lot more up for a neutral conversation where we all as the players in a system aren’t looking at each other in an accusatory fashion, but rather asking how collectively we make the system more effective.

That certainly seems to be a theme of what you’ve been saying. You’ve got the evidence, but how do you actually use that to get everybody to cooperate and move forward.

There was a very good conversation at the August criminal justice summit and in the future we could look at something like that for the court system. I think that would be highly desirable.

At another level, in a number of areas, we have a local courts committee where our staff meet with police and lawyers and practitioners to discuss the data that we get about the effective functioning of the courts, to work out how can this can be used more effectively. I think that type of engagement will make a really big difference to the court system.

What would you like to tell the legal profession after your seven-plus years as Secretary for Justice and Chief Executive?

I think they do a great job. There are a lot of lawyers that spend a lot of time working extremely hard for their clients and in doing that they pay a great service to the justice system. They are, in many cases, what I’d call the face of justice so justice is not just a theoretical concept, because many people only understand and see justice in the operators of the system, be that judges or lawyers or registry staff. How all of us behave affects the lay-person’s view of the justice system.

I think there are challenges going forward, and I think these are around how we work more collaboratively. There is a high percentage of cases, for instance, that are adjourned within a week of the hearing. Some within a day of the hearing. That may work for a certain reason, but it doesn’t work for the system as a whole. It is highly inefficient and ineffective. You wouldn’t cancel surgery theatres at the rate we cancel court cases because things are decided at the last minute. It’s ultimately a massive waste of public time and public money.

My observation – and that is all it is – would be that I think legal advice is very costly. I question whether that’s sustainable. Its sustainability won’t be determined by whether lawyers think it’s justified or not, it’ll be determined by whether people think that they’re actually going to pay for it.

Then there’s artificial intelligence. I think that will be a disrupting influence on the legal profession. I don’t say that because I think it should disrupt the profession, and I don’t pass a value on AI versus sitting down with a lawyer, I just simply say as a matter of fact that it will be a big disruptive influence and if I was a lawyer I’d be thinking what does that mean for me?

And what about our courthouses? Are they going to stay fit for purpose as things change?

My personal reflection – I stress that this is a personal reflection – is that at times there is a tension between what is fit for purpose in a modern age and the history and aura around court buildings. Court buildings and courtrooms have a certain presence – they almost have a certain brand – and to maintain that is quite expensive. A lot of them are very old buildings, they’re quite antiquated and they’re very ornate.

Going forward, we really have to ask ourselves, does the average person in the street really have an affinity with that type of structure and ambiance? I personally don’t think they do, but that’s the conversation that needs to be had. I think going forward that our buildings should be much more modern and fit for purpose today. So, when people walk into them they have an affinity with them because they see it as part of a modern world. And that builds trust, but it also builds a level of comfort, that means they contribute to the court hearing or process in a lot more positive energetic way than being in an environment that they find totally foreign and strange, which just closes people down.

They are lovely buildings and I’m not saying we get rid of them. I’m saying that for what we need to use them for, we could do a lot better for the public and also for the stakeholders by going to buildings that are more modern. You wouldn’t want to be arriving for your surgery in an ornate antiquated facility built in the 1920s – so why would justice be any different?

Looking back over your time with the ministry, what are the achievements you’d like to remember?

First is working with a great group of people in the ministry. We’ve got about 3,800 staff with hugely diverse backgrounds. They are very energetic and passionate about justice and that for me has been inspiring. And every day when I come to work you’re just dealing with really interesting people who are dedicated to the cause of justice. That, to me, has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job. And I’d extend that to include the stakeholders in the system, the lawyers and the judges, the victims’ advisers, the police, the corrections staff. They’re all people that do a very challenging job, a very purposeful job and they’ve been great to work with.

Interior panorama of the Justice Centre
Interior panorama of the Justice Centre

The second thing is I’ve been very proud of the way we have re-orientated the ministry’s purpose around making it people-centric. What the ministry’s done is distilled the fact that we’re in a very complex system that is steeped in history, but ultimately the reason we’re here is for the public of New Zealand that need to access justice services. It’s really important to focus on that. We all contribute be as it lawyer, judge, police, or corrections officer. But we’re not the reason the system is here. We’re here because people need their disputes resolved, and it’s only when we singularly focus on that that we can be guaranteed that whatever we’re doing to improve the system, we’re doing the right thing. Because if we focus on ourselves, we won’t be doing the right thing.

The building of the data capability has been a massive milestone. It’s been a lot of hard work but I think we’ve really helped in our ability to move the court system from one that’s talked about anecdotally to one where we have empirical evidence as to how the system is working and how it isn’t. We’ve got a lot more work to do, but there is some fantastic information in these datasets that we’re producing and it’s only through that that you’ll be able to make empirical decisions going forward because unless you’ve got the data you don’t know how things are working.

Probably the final thing is our focus on timeliness. I know at times that it’s been controversial and I know not everyone has agreed with it, but I think we’ve got a system that by and large is world class. Where we are out of kilter with other systems is our timeliness. There are a lot of cases that go through quickly and a lot of cases that don’t and timeliness to me is a benchmark in how humane the system is.

You’ve set a goal of resolving all serious harm cases within 12 months. Are we going to see more of this goal-setting and committing to targets?

Absolutely. It’s really important. I think it’s important to have the goal because then that drives certain behaviours that you want. It drives behaviours about being efficient and effective, it also drives behaviours around what’s stopping you from achieving that goal, therefore understanding the system. I think it’s really important around the integrity and the legitimacy of the system that we work really hard on timeliness. There are things we can’t control, like the inflow, but at the end of the day I would have thought every New Zealander would expect that serious harm cases should be resolved within 12 months. That’s their expectation. And therefore we need to do what we can to achieve that. Now we may not achieve it, but the most important thing is that we’re dedicated to trying to achieve it. I’m passionate about goals; I think they’re utterly critical.

You’re going to the Ministry of Defence. Defence of course has its OP RESPECT programme focused on workplace culture. What’s the Ministry of Justice’s experience been in workplace culture change?

We’ve done a lot of work around culture and that arose from some early engagement results we got which were less than desirable. We’ve done a lot of work around induction, training, and supporting the frontline. There’s always more work to do, but it’s a consciousness of how do we support all the people that work here.

We rolled out a programme recently which is called Our Place, Our People, and that’s really all about wanting people to feel that they are welcome and supported in the work environment. And that goes beyond the work that they do, but it’s if they have personal challenges or struggles that we can support them during that time. We look at things like family violence, suicide and mental health, and we’re training our managers through that process so that they can identify where we think that staff have some of these challenges and then help them in a direction that they can get help in those times. We think this is critically important. There is a lot more to people’s lives than their work life, and the leadership team has been working to create a workplace that recognises that, and supports our people in their life outside of work as well.

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