Local courts caught up in cost-cutting update

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 13/05/2012

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Local courts could be the next casualty of the Government's cost-cutting, as it targets justice system efficiencies, including greater use of internet and electronic filing to "drag courts into the 21st century".

Justice Ministry data released to the Sunday Star-Times, shows the country's 62 courthouses cost more than $208 million to run, but average less than 46 per cent use.

The Government wants to save money on courts to spend it on lowering crime and improving offender rehabilitation, and Courts Minister Chester Borrows has confirmed he has asked officials to determine how much courts cost, and how busy they are.

The focus was on efficiencies and service delivery, not location, but he could not rule out closures.

He said the system was bound up with tradition. "We need to drag it into the 21st century, bearing in mind that it's pretty much entirely a paper-based system. If you look at the way we use technology, it seem ridiculous that you have to file everything on paper and trot along to a court to do anything."

Being able to file papers online was basic, he said. "The fact the courts have resisted that, does not reflect well on the justice system."

He said holding to tradition in some areas, such as the rule of law, was right. But courts were "more or less being left in the dust of agencies operating in a more modern way". A court call centre in Auckland had been able to answer 92 per cent of questions, whereas before it was set up, 54 per cent of calls went to voicemail or unanswered.

Labour spokesman Charles Chauvel feared National would look for extreme savings, rather than find them as part of a rational review, when there was room to "co-locate" courts, such as in school halls.

Courts and tribunals acting deputy secretary Robert Pigou said the aim was to improve the speed at which cases were dealt with. "We are looking at ways to boost courtroom use because it's critical to throughput."

It's estimated recent changes will cut the average time it takes to hear a case by about 25 per cent, and Pigou said one move was regional case management, rather than providing services around individual courts. A regional approach had cut Family Court waiting times in Auckland from up to 35 weeks to nine.

"People are more concerned about how quickly their case is heard, not where."

Judges can hold court anywhere. Environment Court hearings have been held in conference rooms, and bail hearings after the Christchurch earthquakes on the banks of the Avon.

Meanwhile, Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson has denied plans to cut 23 judges after a leaked letter to him from Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue revealed her concerns that officials had identified those "surplus to requirements".

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BY THE NUMBERS

Courthouses:62

Courtrooms: 300

Cost of district courts, including corporate and head office overheads: $208m

District court operational costs: $115m

Daily sitting hours per court: 5.25 hours

Average utilisation of medium-large courts: 52.1%

Average utilisation of all courts: 46%

Busiest medium-large court: Tokoroa (73%)

Least busy medium-large court: Queenstown (30.8%)

Least busy small court: Chatham Islands (0.8%)

Most expensive court: Wellington ($15.4m)

- Sunday Star Times

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