14 Jan 2015

Law change 'overwhelms' courts

8:48 am on 14 January 2015

A new law brought in just six weeks ago has caused major backlogs and an administrative nightmare for courts across the country.

The change to the Sentencing Act means every case which identifies a victim must to be referred for a restorative justice conference.

Wellington High Court

Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

There are delays in several courts throughout the country, including Christchurch, Wanganui and Hamilton as cases go on hold for restorative justice providers to find victims and formally ask if they want to meet their offender.

This is despite the possibility of also being asked the same question by police or other court authorities.

The delays have been described as an "appalling situation" by one Christchurch judge.

The law change took effect in December and lawyers say it's a backward step by the Government which has always pressured the system to work faster.

As one of the biggest courts in the country, Christchurch seems to be suffering the worst backlog.

It's understood more than 70 cases a week are being referred from the court, while local restorative justice services have said they can handle only 10 cases a week.

Christchurch lawyer Grant Tyrrell said the city's courts are getting overwhelmed.

"It's adding another layer, another appearance and we've been lectured at great length by probably successive governments about the amount of court time that's been used for no benefit and in one swoop they've added to that," he said.

"Anytime you make a blanket rule, it just creates an administrative nightmare."

Auckland District Court

Auckland District Court Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Mr Tyrrell said his main worry is the cases that actually need restorative justice will miss out if supervisors get swamped.

"There's no discretion. There's no ability for judges, counsel, police to say well actually this is not an appropriate matter for restorative justice.

A criminal lawyer and restorative justice consultant for Auckland's service providers, Helen Bowen, said she's also seen the law create a backlog.

She said while the change was the right idea, the Ministry of Justice was under prepared.

"You can't just stick on a large number of conferences into a system that is already quite vexed and if there isn't the time, if there aren't the number of facilitators and if you don't put a good process in place, then it's going to be rushed and not so effective," she said.

'Huge opportunity

Restorative Justice Aotearoa is in favour of the change despite being aware of the backlogs.

Its general manager, Mike Hinton, said any new law will have its teething problems but there will be benefits.

"I think it provides huge opportunity for society, I think it provides huge opportunity for victims to actually participate meaningfully in our justice system," he said.

"There's going to be some hiccups and speed bumps along the way, we'll work though them. This is a fundamental change in our system and it will take time and a bit of patience to get it right."

He said all courts are different and the problems need to be dealt with individually at a local level.

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice said recent research showed that recidivism rates are 12 percent lower for offenders who participated in restorative justice.

It said the law's still at a bedding-in stage and staff are aware of some cases taking longer to progress through the courts.

The ministry said it was talking regularly with courts staff and providers of restorative justice services and will consider further steps if the current concerns continue.

  • Law Society warns longer court delays likely
  • Lawyers warn against blanket change
  • Ministry manager blamed judges