6 Sep 2021

Some prisoners have 'no idea' when their trials will be heard

11:03 am on 6 September 2021

Covid restrictions have disrupted the legal system so badly that some people are spending longer in prison waiting for a trial than they would be sentenced to if found guilty, a barrister says.

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Photo: 123RF

The lockdown was also causing concerns that serious cases will be abandoned after being suspended part way through as the country lept into level 4.

The justice system was already severely under pressure following last year's outbreaks, and the backlog just increased.

Nationally nearly 20,000 court events have been adjourned or rescheduled because of the level 3 and 4 restrictions.

That included over 150 jury trials, four of which were barrister Marie Taylor-Cypher's.

"These people who had been preparing for their trials for a year or 18 months are now in a position when they have no idea, and nor do I, of when their trial will be heard."

For two cases, which should have now completed their trials, neither remand prisoners are able to get new dates. One of which has to wait until December just to find out when it will go ahead.

Taylor-Cyphers said it was incredibly frustrating, but for the defendants, it was devastating.

"It's all they think about, it's the most important thing in their life a lot of the time.

"Some of these people are in custody, that means they're in jail and they were either waiting for the outcome of the trial to be able to be released because they were found innocent.

"Or in some cases, and two of mine are like this, they are in jail and by the time even if they're found guilty, if everything goes wrong, they would have been in jail for longer than they would have been even if they were sentenced."

Covid-19 had broken the legal system, and that system hadn't worked out how to catch up, Taylor-Cyphers said.

Courts, judges and courtrooms are already booked up until late next year, dealing with 2020's delays.

Auckland Crown solicitor Brian Dickey said that could mean some of these current suspended cases might not be heard until 2023.

But it was not just a concern for defendants, it also caused problems for complainants.

"Some victims won't come back for a second trial after the adjournment of a date.

"They're quite emotionally invested in that date, and if it doesn't get on, though it's nobody's fault, it can be very difficult to get the victim to come back to another trial in six to 12 months time, particularly in the area of sexual violence."

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Chief Justice of New Zealand Dame Helen Winkelmann has said jury trials are likely to recommence at alert level 2. Photo: Supplied

Dickey said after the 2020 lockdown they lost several cases, because complainants didn't want to go through the process again.

There were dozens of cases in Auckland alone that were part way through, or nearly completed, but had to be abandoned when Covid returned to the community, Dickey said.

These included one for murder and a multiple complainant sexual violence case.

New Zealand Bar Association president Paul Radich said this amount of disruption to courts had never happened before, not even during the world wars.

"Courts have always been able to operate to some degree.

"The judges and the Heads of Bench are having to go to quite extraordinary lengths to operate as much as they can remotely through the use of technology, while keeping public safety by adjourning of the jury trials until we get back down to level 2. "

Radich said there would soon be a triage system set up to rearrange the suspended trials.

"Those cases that were scheduled for jury trials will be assessed to find out when they can go ahead. In some cases that may not be until well into next year, and in other cases gaps may come in the schedule as cases are shuffled around in terms of order of priority."

Chief Justice of New Zealand Dame Helen Winkelmann has said jury trials are likely to recommence at alert level 2.

According to the Corrections website, any time spent on remand is taken off a person's total sentence time.

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