Courts shake-up unveiled by Justice minister

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 16:31 27/09/2013

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Justice Minister Judith Collins has revealed further proposed changes to the courts in what she says will be the biggest overhaul in more than 100 years.

The proposals follow the Law Commission's review of the Judicature Act 1908 this year and are aimed at streamlining the court system and making it more transparent.

Defendants were spending too long in remand, it took too long to reach decisions, and the paper-based courts system was "archaic", Collins said.

The Judicature Modernisation Bill, which was being drafted and was expected to be introduced before the end of the year, would address these issues.

It would roll the country's 59 district courts into one, and all court decisions, apart from those in the Family Court or those subject to suppressions, would be placed online.

Video links would also be used more often in criminal procedural matters to avoid transporting prisoners.

The courts system was still paper-based and files could be lost or misplaced, Collins said, while digitising everything would speed the system.

"It is archaic and frankly it is not fit for purpose for what we want," she said.

"This is not just about . . . making it all on computer, it's about speeding up the entire system."

Once the files were online, possibly by next year, judges working outside their jurisdiction could work on other decisions in their own jurisdiction, meaning less downtime for those judges.

Collins said the justice system needed to catch up with changing times, and the changes were as dramatic as a country moving from the horse and cart to the car.

Crime, from sexual abuse to money laundering to terrorism and identity theft, had largely moved online "and that's why this is really important for the justice sector and the way that we look at it".

Defendants spending up to 18 months on remand for a hearing was also too long as was the length of time it took for decisions to be made, she said.

Labour's justice spokesman Andrew Little said the party would support measures to speed up the court process including the increased use of technology and the clarification of rules about declaring judges' conflicts of interest.

"Labour's willingness to co-operate, however, won't extend to imposing arbitrary deadlines on court judgments," he said.

It was reported today that Collins wanted individual courts to establish their own deadlines for decisions in order to force their faster delivery, but Little said hearings were often taking longer because they tended to be more complex.

"It will be useful to set some reasonable expectations about delivery of judgments but legislating hard deadlines raises the obvious question of what happens if they're breached," he said.

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"Will the offending judge be given a detention or a hundred lines?"

Good guidelines were appropriate but there was no point in having a level of rigidity that did not take account of the time needed for difficult cases and where any sanctions were likely to be meaningless, he said.

"I'm sure New Zealanders would prefer a decision that's right rather than one that's hasty," Little said

Collins said the drop in the number of people appearing before the courts gave the Government room to make the changes.

- Stuff

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