New Zealand Law Society - Te Ao Mārama – A new way of working

Te Ao Mārama – A new way of working

Te Ao Mārama – A new way of working
Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu shares his insights of the evolution of Te Ao Mārama, an initiative of the District Court; what it means and the positive impact it delivers for those who participate in our courts.

Te Ao Mārama is a District Court initiative that has come a long way since it was announced in my 2020 Norris Ward McKinnon Lecture at the University of Waikato. As explained in that lecture, Te Ao Mārama is a judicially led kaupapa that responds to long-standing concerns expressed by defendants, victims, parties to proceedings and wider whānau members that they have found our court processes confusing, alienating, disempowering and retraumatising. Lawyers who appear regularly in our court will be familiar with these concerns.

It is important to emphasise timely justice is a fundamental component of Te Ao Mārama. We are all aware lengthy delays for those who are waiting for their cases to be heard carry a human toll for everyone involved. This toll extends to those responsible for reducing the backlogs, namely the legal profession, judicial officers, court staff and others who play important roles in the justice system. The wellbeing of all involved must be balanced and maintained as we undertake this most important task of reducing delays in our court.

As many of you know, there is no single cause of backlogs. There are multiple contributing factors that cross the whole justice sector. The District Court is committed to addressing backlogs. Over the past year, we have substantially changed the way we roster judges and schedule cases. We are now rostering as many judges as possible to sit in those courts with the largest backlogs. We have referred to this as “priority-based rostering and scheduling”. This year we intend to make more improvements as we strive to reduce the time it takes for people to have their cases heard and determined in our court.

Te Ao Mārama recognises that every court appearance must be meaningful. It requires no changes to the law and does not compromise the independence of the judiciary, justice sector agencies or the community. It is not a new court; it is our new way of working in the mainstream District Court and is intended to enhance access to justice for everyone who participates in our court.

Early last month, I was delighted to be able to share with members of the profession the Best Practice Framework we have prepared to support implementing Te Ao Mārama in the family, youth and criminal jurisdictions of the District Court. For those of you who appear regularly in our court, I hope you have had a chance to read the framework.

As you would expect, Te Ao Mārama has developed significantly since 2020 and the framework reflects the many hours we have spent talking with and listening to local communities, judicial officers, court staff, the profession and justice sector stakeholders about what is needed and practicable. The framework contains answers to many of the questions you have been asking about Te Ao Mārama and explains how the kaupapa will be implemented in concrete terms. The framework sets high-level expectations and guidance for everyone who has a role to play in the District Court.

The focus of Te Ao Mārama starts in the Family Court and the Youth Court. Relevant statistics show those children who have been in state care and exposed to family violence have a high risk of being trapped in the ‘justice pipeline’ from a young age. A 2018 study showed 83% of young people aged 18, 19 and 20 who were in the adult prison system had been in some form of state care when they were children. Other research has shown 50% of the prison population has had some exposure to family violence when they were children. For Māori that figure is 60% and for females it is 70%. Anyone who graduates from state care to youth justice is 15 times more likely to go on to offend as an adult. That same person is then 107 times more likely to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment before turning 21.

It is not a new court; it is our new way of working in the mainstream District Court and is intended to enhance access to justice for everyone who participates in our court

Te Ao Mārama will concentrate on improving support for children and families in the Family Court and Youth Court, particularly those who find themselves in state care and/or are exposed to family violence. With this focus in mind, Te Ao Mārama has significant potential to reduce the number of children in care, the number of children who offend in the medium term and the number of children who later enter the adult criminal jurisdiction – all contributing to a long-term and enduring reduction in recidivism and the cost of crime.

A key feature of Te Ao Mārama is it invites the strength of local iwi and communities into the courtroom to help provide wraparound support for court participants who need it most. Although obviously this will be relevant and helpful for Māori, it is not designed only for Māori. To be clear, Te Ao Mārama aims to improve access to justice and outcomes for all New Zealanders regardless of their ethnicity, culture, abilities, who they are or where they are from.

One powerful way to understand Te Ao Mārama is to see it in action or to hear from those who are involved in delivering it. In the week before Waitangi Day, I travelled to Te Tai Tokerau with the Principal Family Court Judge, Judge Moran, and the Principal Youth Court Judge, Judge Malosi. We met with two community-based service providers who are providing wraparound support for the people who come to court there. We were highly impressed with the work they were doing and the support they were providing those who needed it most.

Porirua Youth Court

The introduction of Te Ao Mārama best practice approaches, court lists and processes has been announced in Hamilton, Gisborne and Kaitāia. We have been working closely with several other locations that will be announced soon. The locations we have been working with to date have been selected based on factors such as community, judicial, court and sector readiness.

Although we plan to work closely with the remaining District Court locations in a sequenced manner over coming months and years, there are numerous Te Ao Mārama best practice approaches that may be able to be developed in the more immediate term. As set out in the framework, these are:

  • enhancing connections between local courts, local iwi and local communities
  • improving the quality of information provided to judicial officers
  • improving processes for victims and complainants
  • encouraging people to feel heard in the courtroom
  • establishing alternative courtroom layouts
  • using plain language
  • toning down formalities
  • adopting solution-focused judging approaches.

By now, the framework has been shared widely. You will see Te Ao Mārama is not a ‘one size fits all’ kaupapa. Although there are nationally consistent aspects in the framework, each of the District Court’s 59 locations is different. This means parts of the framework relevant and appropriate for a particular court because of local circumstances may be irrelevant for another court with different circumstances. I encourage you to engage in discussions with your local bar and stakeholder networks to think about how Te Ao Mārama could be set up in your local court and what it might look like.

In the near future, the New Zealand Law Society will host a webinar about Te Ao Mārama and the Best Practice Framework. I, along with a number of other judges, will participate in the webinar. It will include presenters from courts where the Te Ao Mārama kauapapa is already up and running.

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