Annual stocktakes are a valuable opportunity to pause and reflect on the bigger picture, and to consider how the skills and commitment of District Court judges serve and enhance the administration of justice.
The degree to which resource shortages hamper further improvement is often discouraging. In 2017-2018, the impact of tighter statutory rules for boosting the judicial ranks to fill gaps began to impact on rostering. The District Court started losing a judge at an average of one a month. At the same time, the Family Court in particular has been labouring under escalating work pressures and delays.
In May, I determined that judicial resource needed to be redeployed from the criminal and civil jurisdictions to the Family Court, taking effect in the new financial year. Gains in reducing timeframes for jury trials may stall and unwind as a result. However disheartening this is, making tough calls about allocating judicial resource is part of the role of Chief Judge.
It is a task made more difficult when demand for court time across all divisions is beyond judicial control.
However, I am constantly buoyed by my colleagues’ dedication. District Court judges continue to adapt to constrained circumstances to deliver justice in ways relevant and effective for New Zealanders. We endeavour to “speak the law with a New Zealand accent”. It was fitting that this was the theme of the 2018 Triennial Conference.
Only once every three years can judges be spared from court duties for a conference involving the whole of bench. Not a moment was wasted when we met in early June in Rotorua. We heard from 19 guest speakers over four days. We placed special emphasis on exploring the power and potential of transformative justice and understanding the perspectives of our diverse cultures and communities.
The exchange of ideas injected new vigour into developing solutions-focused initiatives across the District Court, including taking a more comprehensive approach to inform sentencing decisions using cultural reports under s 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002.
Auckland City councillor Efeso Collins addresses the Triennial Conference.
Judges have been working behind-the-scenes in 2018 to mainstream the Matariki Court, so as to get a greater pool of knowledge around each defendant before imposing a sentence. Drawing inspiration from the Rangatahi Courts in the Youth Court and the Matariki Court for adult offenders in Kaikohe, the approach will see greater use of s 27. This allows a court to hear from cultural speakers nominated by an offender. The speakers can inform the court about an offender’s whānau, community and cultural background, both in respect of how this may have related to the offending and to what support may be relevant to potential sentences. The approach offers the court a more dimensional view of an offender, which may help a judge to find a more appropriate and effective sentence.
AVL in Court
A law change in 2017 paved the way for greater use of audio-visual links (AVL) so that more defendants can appear in court remotely from either prison or a police cell. It raised concerns about the implications for fair trial rights and access to justice.
In October 2017, I convened a multi-agency workshop to develop a nationally consistent approach to AVL in criminal proceedings, to ensure the new technology did not degrade justice. Informed by research conducted by my office, the workshop took a collaborative approach. It has produced a set of protocols designed to ensure the experience of remote participation is as close as possible to what a defendant would experience if the court appearance were in person.
We must always remain vigilant that new technology employed in the courts works in the best interests of justice.
More accolades for the District Court website
For the third time in five years, the District Court won the Award for Excellence from the Australasian Institute for Judicial Administration. Taking the bow this year was the District Court website and its Director of Publications, Karen Harvey, and the former General Manager of District Courts (now Director of Māori Strategy) at the Ministry of Justice, Tony Fisher, who was instrumental in the website’s establishment.
Karen Harvey (left) the Chief Judge and Tony Fisher accepting the AIJA award.
The award recognises initiatives that improve access to justice, demonstrate innovation and deliver real benefits. It is richly deserved. Developing an online publishing system capable of managing the volume and diversity of decisions in the District Court, along with a reliable method for vetting the sensitive nature of some material, was a huge challenge. In only its second year, the website is giving unprecedented public and professional access to significant judicial decisions.
Respectful workplace culture
This year the New Zealand legal profession became swept up in the global #MeToo movement that has challenged bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace. Some of the accusations and survey findings made for sobering reading, and the judiciary were not immune from criticism.
I have been reassured by the level of concern among my colleagues about the issues raised and their openness to improving the culture within the District Court. As judicial officers, we all understand we have a duty to engender a respectful work environment and to act appropriately to uphold and promote respect for the law and the dignity of the court. At the same time, we must retain and maintain control over proceedings in our courtrooms and continue to hold others properly to account.
Through a recent initiative led by the Chief Justice, I look forward to clearer channels of communication with members of the Bar should any wish to raise concerns in future about courtroom culture.
Ringing in change in the South
Judges in the South Island’s two biggest court regions were on the move this year as two major construction projects were completed. Christchurch’s 18 District Court judges moved in to the new courthouse complex in late 2017.
The modern lines and bright open spaces of the new building contrast with the more traditional but no less impressive surroundings of the historic Dunedin Law Courts, where four District Court judges are based.
After a meticulous refurbishment, the Dunedin court building reopened in January, marked by a gala event which included a memorable parade of judges and members of the local Bar through the heart of the city.
Tribute to Judge Laurence Ryan
Principal Family Court Judge Laurence Ryan is beginning a well-earned retirement after five years leading the Family Court and 22 years on the Bench.
He steered the court through the turbulence of major legislative change in 2014 which placed intense pressure on the court.
I want to pay tribute to his forbearance in trying new approaches to alleviate the delays and fundamental shifts in workload and demand which the law change inadvertently produced.
Judge Ryan has always approached the task with patience, good humour and collegiality. He has kept families and children, many of them vulnerable, his number one priority, and there could be no better legacy for the court.
Top Dunedin District Court judges (L-R) Judge Kevin Phillips, Judge Dominic Flatley, Judge Michael Crosbie and Judge Michael Turner join the Chief Judge and the Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, in the refurbished judicial library.
Middle Dunedin judges and local barristers gather for the opening of the refurbished Dunedin Law Courts building.
Bottom The Chief Judge with Principal Family Court Judge, Judge Laurence Ryan.