17 Jun 2020

NZ's high number of remand prisoners 'unacceptable' - Chief Justice

12:52 pm on 17 June 2020

The Chief Justice says work is under way including the formation of a multi-agency committee to reduce delays in court cases following the Covid-19 lockdown.

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Delays in the country's court system are something we should all regret, says the Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann. Photo: Supplied

An estimated 60,000 court proceedings are backlogged and jury trials which were suspended in March due to the virus will not resume till August.

Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann told Nine to Noon the remand population is unacceptable, the court system is too complex and the cost of litigation is to high.

"The starting point is what's already under way which is to reduce churn. If you reduce the number of court events per proceeding you reduce the amount of times you drag people into courts for no purpose, then you increase the ability of the court to reduce the backlog."

She said the Chief District Court Judge has formed a special committee to address delays within the courts, which will work alongside the police, the Department of Corrections, lawyers and the Ministry of Justice.

"Sometimes, we have people coming into court when their case has not progressed at all due to many reasons. This is what needs to stop.

"Every delay in our system is something we should all regret. This pandemic has hit a system which already had a large backlog, especially in the district court," Dame Helen said.

She said shortly before lockdown 21 new district court judges were appointed to help with backlog.

"We had already resolved that change was needed. There were many things telling us that - people at the margins of our society were not accessing the protection of the law they needed.

"The cost of litigation is so high and that is one of the major barriers to accessing our courts. So is the lack of knowledge, if you don't know your rights the court system can seem very complex," she said.

Remand numbers 'a concern'

Another key aspect marked for change is the remand population within New Zealand's prisons.

"The amount of people in remand in prison is unacceptable. Often they are not even convicted and are simply awaiting trial, they don't have access to rehabilitation so they can often be sentenced and released immediately. This should be a great concern to all of us as a society."

The fact that trial files are still paper-based will also be addressed, she said.

"There are no legal barriers to us having a properly functioning digital operating model but it is an extremely hard thing to achieve.

"What the judiciary has learnt along with the Ministry of Justice is the best solution to finding a digital operating model is small steps which is what we are working through."

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