Making the wheels of justice turn faster

Last updated 09:56 08/06/2013
Kevin Conroy
Kent Blechynden/Fairfax NZ

KEVIN CONORY, COURT SERVICE MANAGER: "It's going to be a totally new way, much more efficient and effective. It's all going to make for less time on unimportant things and more time being spent on getting cases to move."

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More than 135,000 cases come before the district courts every year, touching the lives of thousands of defendants, victims and their families. Officials are now implementing sweeping changes to speed up justice. Andrea Vance reports.

When Kevin Conroy started work at the Magistrates Court in Blenheim in January 1963, everything was done by hand. His work involved collecting fines, registering births, death and marriages - and even some court maintenance.

Fees were paid in stamps. Judges were called magistrates. Trials were held only in the Supreme Court (later renamed the High Court) and staff wore full legal regalia in the stuffy courtroom.

Each case was carefully entered, in perfect longhand, into a Criminal Record ledger, which a magistrate carried into the courtroom. There were no tape- recorders: hearings were recorded in shorthand and transcribed only when required.

Police presented charges on a sheet of paper, typed up in the watch-house. And reporters sat quietly writing notes in the corner - with no cameras allowed into hearings.

Fifty years later, after stints in Christchurch, Napier, and Rotorua, 67-year-old Mr Conroy is still with the Ministry of Justice, working in the Wellington District Court. And, remarkably, after years with the same department, he is still enthusiastic about his job.

During the five decades, he has seen massive change in the system. Magistrates Courts, which dealt with minor criminal matters and civil claims, were replaced in 1980 by District Courts. The development of word processors had judges move away from writing up their decisions in ink. But by far the biggest changes to the district courts have come in the past two years, as the Government has moved to modernise the creaking and overloaded justice system.

Officials have called it the biggest shakeup of the courts in half a century. And with 135,000 criminal cases before the court in a year, as well as civil cases, the work of the court touches thousands: victims, their families, jurors, the innocent and the guilty.

Last year alone there were 1513 jury trials, each tying up at least 12 members of the public who were summoned to serve.

Computers, electronic libraries and the internet should have revolutionised the system. But a combination of sluggish bureaucracy and the need for legislative change means it has been slow to emerge from the digital dark age.

After almost a decade of groundwork - and pilots in Tauranga and Manukau - former justice minister Simon Power embarked on a programme to clear a backlog of cases and overhaul the system. In 2010, he noted there were 43,000 unnecessary district court appearances every year, and the average time to dispose of a case was a year. Crime was dropping - and yet cases were taking longer to resolve and costs were ballooning.

Since October, the public has been able to apply for criminal records and private security licences online. It is also now possible to lodge and pay for Disputes Tribunal hearings and applications via their website.

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A more centralised and simple system for collecting fines was also introduced, reducing admin costs by $2 million. It had the added bonus of seeing the total amount of fines and reparations owing drop from $710m in 2010 to $585m in October 2012.

The National Transcription Service was centralised, no longer requiring one or two note takers in every court. Calls to courts are now diverted to call centres. Services around probate - the proving and registering of a will - have also been rationalised.

Since 2010, video links between courts and prisons have been used to cut down on the transportation of inmates. It was estimated this would save the Ministry of Justice and Corrections $70m over 10 years.

And 12 new "service delivery managers" have been recruited to make sure courts maximise the use of sitting hours and cut down on wasted time.

Finally, this year, an electronic operating system has been rolled out to replace the paper-based court record with a national electronic one.

Officials estimate it will free up about 86,000 hours of police and court staff time every year.

THE ultimate aim is to reduce the time it takes to deliver court services by 50 per cent, within five years.

"There is a lot less paper now," Mr Conroy says. Back then it was very people-intensive, everything was manual."

He spent 18 years as a registrar in Lower Hutt, before becoming a criminal case flow manager in 1998. Restructuring last month had him shift into a court service manager role. He will retire in October.

"The changes are exciting, really they are. I sound like I'm advertising, but it's going to be a totally new way, much more efficient and effective. It's all going to make for less time on unimportant things and more time spent on getting cases to move."

As part of the overhaul, the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Act was passed in 2011, and most of its provisions come into effect from July 1. The first stage of its reforms, which began on March 5, involved technical provisions.

Officials calculate the sweeping changes contained in the legislation will alone free up more than 16,000 court hours.

"I think the Criminal Procedure Act will put more responsibility on people, on the lawyer and prosecutors to get information together quicker. With the new legislation there are time constraints. Things have to be done within a certain amount of days," Mr Conroy said.

"It will cut down a lot of delays and it will make a significant difference in the speed that we can move cases through the system."

The act streamlines a maze of procedural steps to cut down on unnecessary appearances.

It also requires lawyers and prosecutors to advance their cases as far as possible before appearing before a judge. They must meet before a trial to hammer out what issues they can agree on.

Incentives and sanctions (such as cost orders) to meet requirements are imposed.

In certain cases, a hearing can carry on in the absence of a defendant, further cutting delays.

And in a bid to cut down on the number of jury trials, the threshold is raised to offences that carry a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. About 600 cases a year will be heard by a judge alone.

It was the last provision that saw the Green Party refuse to support the legislation. During the bill's final reading in Parliament, MP Kennedy Graham argued it reduced access to justice.

University of Canterbury criminal law lecturer Dr Chris Gallavin also argued that conviction rates would increase because "judges are less likely to be swayed by the human-interest side of things".

MODERNISING the court system has not been without bumps in the road. Last year four district courts, in Feilding, Upper Hutt, Warkworth and Whataroa, were closed.

A further nine, in Dargaville, Waihi, Te Awamutu, Te Kuiti, Opotiki, Marton, Waipukurau, Oamaru and Balclutha, will not be opened five days a week, but only for specific hearings.

"The policy we applied here is the same you'd apply to anything you own," Justice Secretary Andrew Bridgman explained. "If you hardly used it, you wouldn't be spending money on it."

The ministry instead "beefed up" its bigger courts, furnishing them with more staff, better security and victims' advisers, he said.

"You are getting a better, quicker service. In one sense it's a bit analogous to a hospital. The bottom line is you would rather go into a bigger hospital that had a multiplicity of services and people used to high volume, which means greater accuracy and experience, than go into a smaller hospital." Jobs have been lost as the ministry transforms. Restructuring saw 37 axed in 2009. About 30 were slashed in a further round in October, and two tiers of management were asked to reapply for their jobs.

When ICT services were contracted out to Fujitsu late last year, the Public Service Association accused the ministry of denying workers proper redundancy rights.

But Mr Bridgman believes the payoff is a more accessible and "people-centred" system. He believes it takes too long for cases to conclude - and that has become the accepted norm.

"There is Ma and Pa that have a case, and they have to wait 12 months before it's resolved. And that will ultimately consume their lives. Even worse, here's a child victim of a sex abuse case that's having to wait 13 to 14 months for the case to be heard.

"We have got to recalibrate what we think is acceptable, and we've got to shorten the time frames."

However, a programme to centralise Auckland's court services was dogged by controversy, with lawyers and judges complaining it caused backlogs and delays in cases involving at-risk children and domestic violence. Mr Bridgman apologised in November for the problems, explaining the ministry had underestimated the volume of cases.

He admits that with swifter justice comes quality issues. "We won't compromise that," he insists. "What we want is a system that's simpler, easier to understand and a lot quicker."

Courts Minister Chester Borrows has said the changes "will result in fewer wasted appearances at which cases are simply not progressed, less delay, and a more transparent and efficient system".

Labour's justice spokesman, Andrew Little, supports the changes. "I know . . . that there is a combined sense of anxiety and also a palpable sense of thrill that the [legal] profession has about the coming into force of this legislation, because there were problems - major problems - with the administration of criminal justice in this country."

The most significant problem were delays. "The profession was very keen to see changes made that would enable cases to be brought on and justice to be administered in a timely fashion . . . As we all know, justice delayed is justice denied . . . So we welcome the legislation; it was the right thing to do."

However, the Opposition has already voiced considerable concern about further Government plans to shake up the justice sector.

In the past week Parliament's select committee has reported back on reforms of the Family Court. Labour and the Greens oppose the changes. Labour argued the overriding motivation for change was to save cash; and the Greens that it did not protect the victims of domestic abuse.

BY THE NUMBERS

  • 135,000 criminal summary cases reached the district court in 2012.
  • 4500 went to a defended hearing where a verdict was reached.
  • 1400 jury trials concluded last year in the district courts and 113 in the High Court.
  • 6-9 weeks the expected reduction in the time it takes to resolve a case.
  • 31,200 the number of cases cut in a year from the changes.
  • 350-500 fewer cases a year should now require a jury trial.
  • $208m cost of district courts, including corporate and head office overheads.
  • $115m district courts operational costs.
  • 46 per cent average use of courthouse.
  • 5.25 hours daily sitting hours per court.
  • $15.4m cost of running Wellington, the most expensive court.
  • 0.8 per cent utilisation of Chatham Island court, the least busy court.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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