A view from the Minister
Minister of Justice, the Honourable Kiritapu Allan, explores the Government’s work to date in the justice space, and offers a view of where we might be heading with our legal and constitutional framework.
It is a privilege to address in my capacity as the Minister of Justice, give you a sense of where I stand and what the Government is doing to deliver meaningful improvements that will benefit everyone who interacts with the justice system, including the 16,000 plus lawyers reading this column.
As a lawyer myself I’m only too aware there has been a lot of stress placed upon the justice sector as a consequence of the last two years, and the legal profession has been no exception. I see it when I visit courts across the country and speak with frontline staff, lawyers and officials. This has compounded in pressures on cost and human resources. For lawyers in particular, there’s also the subsequent stress of not being able to navigate your client all the way through to an end result in a timely period, which creates a whole lot of additional anxiety.
I’ve heard it when speaking to the Criminal Bar Association and Community Law Centres, who are both at the forefront of ensuring access to justice is accorded to all without fear or favour. I heard it when meeting with Justices of the Peace in my electorate, who have volunteered their time and taken on positions of leadership in the community, including those who undertake judicial duties within the District Court. It has forced people to adapt and work differently. For example, meetings that were once in person now regularly take place online, and courts up and down the country are making wider use of AVL and video conferencing.
Improving access to justice is an enduring priority for this Government and at the heart of every decision I make in this role. As someone involved in the work of administering justice, I believe it’s important to listen to the voices of those who need access to justice or who have experience in trying to do so, to understand what is working and what needs to change. As the Minister of Justice I have the privilege of being in a position to enact meaningful change and that means a significant programme of law reform is in motion, to improve the experiences of those on the frontline, including for victims and the thousands of lawyers working on their behalf.
Recently I announced major reforms to the Legal Aid system, which has come under significant strain in recent years, with settings largely unchanged since 2011 and the number of people eligible for legal aid decreasing. An investment of over $148.7 million across four years will ensure continued access to justice for New Zealanders who cannot afford legal advice and means an additional 93,000 people will be eligible for legal aid from January.
Changes to the Legal Services Regulations 2011 and the Legal Services Act 2011, will address a number of the concerns that have been raised with me by removing the legal aid user charge; increasing both the income eligibility and debt repayment thresholds and removing interest on the repayment of unpaid legal debt. A 12% increase in the hourly rate of legal aid lawyers also came into effect at the start of July.
The Ministry will monitor the effect of changes once they have been implemented, including provider monitoring. They will also commence engagement with the profession on provider coverage, which is a matter I have already raised at select committee.
I have also heard clearly that there is discontent with the fixed fee regime, and I have heard the plea for an independent review into legal aid, which is something I have sought advice on.
Another area the Government is committed to addressing, and something many of you have experienced first-hand, is the ongoing challenge around court delays. As you will know, these delays are not new and they have definitely been exacerbated by Covid-19, with thousands of court events not able to take place since the pandemic began.
The Ministry, judiciary and the legal profession have worked together to ensure the Courts adapted through each Covid-19 wave, which have enabled more court events to proceed and more cases to be resolved. For example, in the District Court, during the first Covid-19 Alert Level 4 period only 32% of normal court events were able to be completed. During the Delta Alert Level 4 period this increased to 40%, and during the Omicron red setting this increased to above 90%.
This, of course, is little consolation to victims, defendants and lawyers affected by delays in getting to trial. I understand the effects of delays are very real, creating stress for lawyers, who feel pressure to get cases to trial, and for victims and defendants who have their lives on hold as they wait for their day in court.
The Government has responded by funding just over $76 million from recent Budgets to provide additional judicial resources, and work with the judiciary, legal profession, court staff and scheduling teams is ongoing to ensure cases are progressed.
The Criminal Process Improvement Programme – or CPIP – is a judicially-led cross-agency programme that will also help to reduce unnecessary adjournments and delays.
Its objectives are to reduce the average time (days) to disposal, the number of events that do not proceed on the day, the average number of events for a case from start to end and the number of days the accused spends in custody waiting for an outcome.
I’m also pleased to report the Three Strikes law has now been repealed. The Three Strikes Repeal Bill was about ensuring that discretion is restored to sentencing courts so that they can sentence offenders proportionately to the crimes they committed. This will mean there will be no more cases where offenders receive grossly disproportionate sentences, such as a long period of imprisonment instead of a short community-based sentence, as happened in one notable case.
The Three Strikes law did not improve outcomes for victims. International evidence shows that three strikes regimes decrease the rate of guilty pleas. This means that victims who would otherwise be spared the trauma of giving evidence, may be re-victimised by having to testify. Put simply, it was a bad law that failed to be a deterrent to offenders and failed both victims and the tax-payer.
Repealing the Three Strikes law returns the law back to the status quo from pre 2010: where the judiciary exercised their discretion in accordance with the Sentencing Act, sentencing guidelines and the facts of the case.
Electoral law reform is another significant area of work that has been well signalled by the Government. I recently introduced two bills which will progress several important targeted changes ahead of next year’s general election, including removing restrictions on the Māori Electoral Option, improving the transparency of political donations, and the eligibility of overseas voters. The proposed changes are aimed squarely at increasing participation in parliamentary elections and improving public trust and confidence in New Zealand’s electoral system.
Key to these changes are the well canvassed proposed changes around political donations. Donations to political parties and candidates are absolutely a legitimate form of political participation. Appropriately regulated political donations and loans underpin public trust in the integrity of our electoral system and the key institutions of a democratic government. The Electoral Amendment Bill lowers the level at which the names of donors must be reported from $15,000 to $5,000. If someone is giving a political party large sums of donations, I believe it’s fair to expect a level of transparency.
Across a longer timeframe, an independent panel will lead a review of New Zealand’s electoral law. This will look at an array of election rules including the voting age and overseas voting, the length of the parliamentary term, the party vote and one electorate seat threshold, and the ratio of electorate seats to list seats.
Another key initiative this year was the introduction of the Justice Cluster Budget, which required the five justice agencies (Police, Ministry of Justice, Corrections, Serious Fraud Office and Crown Law) to collaborate to develop a joint budget from multi-year appropriations. The Cluster was allocated $2.73 billion total operating over the next four financial years, with four key priority areas identified in Budget 22 in order to achieve meaningful change across the criminal justice system: improved access to justice; addressing issues with remand; better outcomes for victims; and better enabled organisations and workforce.
In the long-term, this approach aims to encourage a shift in investment from more traditional justice processes and infrastructure towards earlier community-based prevention, support activity and responses.
To achieve long term reform of the justice system we need co-ordinated change consistent with New Zealand values and aspirations, across both the criminal justice system and the social sector. There is a lot still to achieve, but I hope this overview has given you a sense of where this Government’s priorities lie and my commitment to building a robust and fair justice system, accessible to all.