Lawyers slam court system overhaul

JIMMY ELLINGHAM
Last updated 12:00 17/10/2012

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Prominent Manawatu lawyers are speaking out against a proposed overhaul of the court system, saying they are worried about losing experienced court staff and eroding the public's access to justice.

The Justice Ministry this month released a series of proposals to radically change the way New Zealand's courts operate.

It's possible that 68 fulltime jobs around the country could go, with 7.5 fulltime positions facing the chop in Palmerston North. Two new roles will be created in the city. Feilding's courthouse will close and the two experienced staff members' jobs will go, while Marton's courthouse will be open only on hearing days.

New technology will be introduced, in some cases replacing experienced court managers, team leaders, and case flow managers.

"My principal concern is the ability of the organisation to serve the public is going to be hugely affected," lawyer Steve Winter said.

"We've already got a system that's groaning at the edges."

Mr Winter and Michelle Woods, who make up Palmerston North law firm WinterWoods, say the changes are too much on top of the overhaul the Family Court is set to receive.

That includes limiting the number of cases in which lawyers will be appointed and the introduction of a $900 fee for compulsory pre-court disputes resolution.

With fewer lawyers acting in the Family Court, people going through the process would be forced to rely on court staff for advice, yet there would be fewer experienced staff available.

"The sheer scale of this did surprise me and the people that we're losing alarms me," Mr Winter said.

"Their leadership and calming influence are vital to keep that place going."

Court staff have until the end of the month to tell the ministry their view of the proposed overhaul, but individual lawyers and law firms will not have a formal say - something Mrs Woods said was "absurd".

They worry the changes are a done deal, particularly with the first lot of staff cuts expected to take place this year.

Meanwhile, many of their clients would not have the technological wherewithal to access services over the internet.

Fellow lawyer Peter Coles said he doubted the rationale behind the changes to the system - that crime rates were falling. "I've been doing this job 38 years and human behaviour hasn't changed that much."

Registry employees were already strained by a lack of resources, he said. With legal aid criteria tightening and forcing experienced criminal lawyers into different fields, Mr Coles said defendants could end up with ineffective legal representation in a court run inefficiently.

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Ministry courts deputy secretary Robert Pigou said four weeks for staff consultation was reasonable, and final decisions would not be made until December.

A ministry spokesman said while lawyers wouldn't be consulted individually, they could express their views through the Law Society.

- Manawatu Standard

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