25 May 2018

Judges pulled from criminal cases to work Family Court backlog

7:01 pm on 25 May 2018

Delays in criminal cases are likely to increase after a decision by the chief District Court judge to reassign judges to the Family Court to address a backlog.

Chief District Court judge Jan-Marie Doogue listening to arguments in the case against the Ministry of Social Development at the Wellington District Court, 4 July 2016

Chief District Court judge Jan-Marie Doogue Photo: Pool / Fairfax NZ

Lawyers working in both fields said they were sympathetic to Judge Jan-Marie Doogue's predicament, and there simply were not enough District Court judges.

As of March there were 8000 defended cases in the Family Court, a 30 percent jump in two years.

To deal with this, Judge Doogue said up to 100 judge days a month would be diverted from criminal and civil hearings, which should allow up to 120 more defended Family Court hearings.

Kirsty Swadling from the Law Society said while this was good for the Family Court, not all District Court judges were suitable for Family Court work.

And she said having to juggle judges to fill gaps was very concerning.

"Our society is predicated on it's citizens being able to access the justice system to resolve it's disputes, to enforce it's criminal code.

"And without an adequately resourced court system that's put at risk," she said.

Criminal Bar Association head Len Andersen said the problem was there were not enough permanent judges.

"And now with judges retiring and not able to be replaced, the difficulty is really coming home to roost."

Judge Doogue said said on average, the District Court was losing judges at the rate of one a month.

Auckland defence barrister Maree Dhyrberg QC said in recent years there has been a concerted effort to reduce waiting times for jury trials in Auckland.

She said sometime people had to wait 18 months or even years for a jury trial, but that was not the case now.

"So if those resources have to be deployed in another situation that is in crisis then of course the risk is that we're going to fall back to longer waiting times to dispose of very important cases."

Ms Dhyrberg said the only way to clear up the current mess was to appoint more judges to the District Court.

Justice minister Andrew Little has announced plans to review changes to the Family Court.

Attorney General David Parker is waiting for a report from justice officials about the number of district court judges.