Jury trials taking longer

SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 20/03/2014

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The Government has trumpeted a reduction in the time taken for cases to move through the courts, but figures show jury trials are taking longer to resolve in many regions.

Courts Minister Chester Borrows released statistics for courts across the country, showing a drop in case "ages" - the time they remain active - in several areas of the justice system.

But the figures for each region ignored areas where wait times had increased.

Full figures requested by The Dominion Post for its readership area show that, while there have been decreases in cases such as civil and family matters, the average age of a case set for a jury trial has jumped.

Between April 30 and December 30 last year, the average age of a criminal jury trial in Wellington rose 12.2 per cent to 380 days.

Napier recorded a 15.4 per cent increase to 282 days, the East Coast/Hawke's Bay a 14.3 per cent increase to 297 and Whanganui a 4.7 per cent jump to 352.

Palmerston North dropped 16.8 per cent to 347 days.

The age of criminal cases dropped in all lower North Island regions except Hastings. Family cases were down everywhere except Hutt Valley, while civil cases dropped in all regions.

For all district court cases nationwide, an average drop of 9 per cent was recorded.

Borrows admitted that jury trials were the challenge, with the lower North Island courts particularly having work to do.

"Jury trials are by their nature longer, more complex, harder to dispose of, and there is more at stake for the defendant.

"So while it is disappointing that some courts are still struggling with jury trial wait times, I remain confident that gains can be made this year with the courts' continued focus on finishing old cases."

Criminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier said changes to the Criminal Procedure Act meant there were fewer crimes that could be dealt with by a jury.

Despite this, however, cases were still moving sluggishly in the system.

The changes had also shortened the time available to lawyers before a plea could be entered, meaning there was a rush to seek full disclosure or get clear instructions from a client.

The time constraints had effectively backfired, leading to lawyers advising clients to select trial by jury as it "set the clock back" and allowed them to gather the appropriate information.

Budget cuts were another reason for the drop, with police and the Crown grappling with resourcing.

Police now issued street warnings for minor crimes such as breaching liquor bans, rather than take the case to court, Bouchier said.

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Labour justice spokesman Andrew Little said it was concerning that minor crimes were not making it to court, as it meant a true picture of crime was not being portrayed. It also deprived victims of the chance to claim reparation.

- The Dominion Post

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