24 Mar 2020

Justice system: How prisons and courts are responding to Covid-19

7:02 pm on 24 March 2020

Court cases are being heard remotely and prisons have shut their gates to visitors as measures to combat Covid-19 ramp up.

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Photo: 123RF

The Chief Justice and heads of court benches have met to identify what court proceedings will be given priority and how they will be heard.

They found it is essential courts continue to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair trial rights, the right to natural justice and rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.


Courts are deemed an essential service and will continue to operate even when the alert level is raised to four on Wednesday afternoon.

Proceedings that affect liberty of the individual, personal safety and wellbeing and matters in which resolution is time-critical will be prioritised this week.

The Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Employment Court, Environment Court, Māori Land Court, Waitangi Tribunal and Coroners Court are shut.

Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann said courts will use remote participation, including audio-visual links, telephone and email, as much as possible.

Physical distancing and hygiene measures will be followed in cases where court attendance in unavoidable, like some in-persona attendances in the District Court.

The Chief Justice said she appreciated the levels of concern amongst the public, court staff and legal profession during these "unprecedented times".

"Our frontline court staff and members of the legal profession have continued to serve the interests of justice, and their constructive approach to the necessary changes we have implemented, and will continue to implement, has kept the courts operating and will continue to see justice administered."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)


Prisons are in an effective lock down after suspending all visits and non-essential movements from midnight Monday.

The temporary suspension includes private and volunteer visits, release to work activities, reintegration activities, visits by researchers and community work activities.

In a statement, National Commissioner Rachel Leota said it was not a decision taken lightly but safety was of paramount concern.

"We know the decision to suspend prison visits and other activities will be incredibly disappointing for prisoners, their families and friends."

Instead of public visits, prisoners are having increased contact with friends and family through phone calls, letters and emails.

Corrections has supplied all inmates with a $5 phonecard each week and is installing more phones in residential units and increasing the amount of inbound emails that can be printed.

There are no confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 in any of the country's 19 prisons.

The Coroners Court

Coroners investigate the cause of sudden, unexplained or suspicious deaths and make recommendations that might prevent similar deaths in the future.

A death that is known to be, or suspected to be, from Covid-19 won't be reported to the coroner because it's from a natural cause.

However, a Covid-19 death will be reportable to the coroner if the death is of someone in official custody or care.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall said while she hoped New Zealand doesn't record a single death from Covid-19, the Coroners Court was prepared if should the worst happen.

Opportunity for change

Criminal barrister and President of the Auckland District Law Society, Marie Dyhrberg QC, said Covid-19 would give courts the impetus to become more efficient.

"I think what's going to come out of this crisis, and there's always something that does is that not just the justice system, but everyone else, is going to say we can work differently, we can save time, we can work remotely."

She said the new court protocols would create a large but inevitable backlog of cases.

"It is very frustrating but I've looked at the steps that have been taken by the Chief Justice in consultation and to be quite frank, as someone who is always jumping up and down about fair trial rights and no undue delay, I see there is nothing that can be done."

Dyhrberg said Covid-19 was a serious threat to prisons housing inmates who naturally lived in confined quarters.

"The prisons have every reason to really fear a case coming to light in prisons and then having to manage that. I know they've got protocols in place but it would be devastating.

"You have huge numbers of people. It's set up for them to be in close quarters. If they have any sort of recreation, it's in a small yard where keeping the social distancing is going to be impossible."

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