Judges warn of 'storm' with too few numbers

SHANE COWLISHAW JUSTICE
Last updated 05:00 01/11/2013

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A group of judges believes there will soon be a critical shortage in their numbers, with senior justice staff lacking an understanding about the day-to-day reality of the district court.

The judiciary has been warning of increasing pressure because of changes to the law, and in a copy of the minutes from an elected representatives meeting - obtained by The Dominion Post - Acting Chief District Court Judge Anne Kiernan describes the "whole situation as critical".

Changes to the Criminal Procedure Act meant more time writing up judgments, she said. "The storm has been brewing for some time but is becoming imminent. Simply there are not enough judges."

Judge Kiernan pointed to a situation in Auckland where 100 case review hearings were set down with no judge allocated, meaning other work had to be cancelled.

With 340 weeks of long leave needing to be booked next year, and the possibility of sickness, it was believed there would be insufficient judges to support the core courts, particularly in June and July.

Another concern was the expected cancellation of acting warrants issued to retired judges, who have historically been used to fill in the gaps.

This would have "serious implications" but it was noted that Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue had done "everything possible" to try to reverse the decision of Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

In a statement, Judge Doogue said the elected representatives group dealt with issues of judge welfare and did not make operational decisions for the district courts.

But it was true a "resource challenge" was expected, with a peak likely to build for about three months in mid-2014.

"I have been in constructive discussions with the attorney-general concerning these issues, and will continue to do so, to ensure that we can service the community's justice needs without undue delay."

A spokesman for Mr Finlayson said he was finalising details about the appointment of temporary judges and was likely to announce the details on Monday.

During the past five years the number of sitting judges had remained the same and, with crime at its lowest rate in 33 years, he was satisfied judges could cope with matters such as sick leave.

In the document, the judges also levelled criticism at the Ministry of Justice, claiming some senior staff lacked an understanding of what actually happened in the district court on a daily basis.

"It was suggested that when policy decisions were being made by senior ministry staff, it could be helpful to have retired judges to attend such meetings to advise of the reality of what actually happens . . . it was generally agreed that the senior ministry staff tend to view judges as prickly and difficult to manage."

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The ministry refused to comment yesterday.

Labour Party justice spokesman Andrew Little said the district court was the "machine room" of the justice system and it was important its judges were not overloaded.

"I just think the Government has got this Pollyanna view that crime is falling and there's less judges needed . . . but the reality is with the changes in the Criminal Procedures Act and the reduction in legal aid, more people are representing themselves and the pressure on the courts is just the same."

- The Dominion Post

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