3 Aug 2023

Senior judges underline 'immense' pressure on lawyers after Law Society's plea

3:30 pm on 3 August 2023
Justice Thomas convicted and fined Austen a total of $7500, along with court costs at the sentencing on Friday, 11 May, 2018.

Chief High Court Judge Susan Thomas has met with lawyers across the country after the Law Society sent a letter, pleading for more time between cases and raising wellbeing issues. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Top judges have been meeting around the country with lawyers about counsel feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the "immense workload pressure".

In June, the Law Society told the judges that lawyers were under the hammer, the family and criminal bars especially, and pleaded for more time between cases.

The Chief High Court Judge and Chief District Court Judge responded in a perhaps unprecedented way, in the face of what they called a "fragility" seeping across from wider society.

"We are taking the unusual step of writing to all judges and judicial officers to highlight issues about the wellbeing of the profession," Justice Susan Thomas and Judge Heemi Taumaunu wrote to all judges, community magistrates and Justices of Peace on 25 June.

"We were extremely concerned."

Counsel were fundamental to the courts, but some were quitting under the workload, they said, adding they had been told:

  • Lawyers "feel they cannot meet the needs of clients".
  • Lawyers wanted judges to allow sufficient time between trials to prepare and to manage the psychological impact trial work could have.
  • Lawyers wanted judges to consider the impact of reassigning work among lawyers, to get cases moving.

"Practitioners experience further stress if they sense they are disappointing judges and the court," the chief judges' letter said, and they needed to be able to take holidays.

"These stresses are causing some practitioners to remove themselves from the work, resulting in even more pressure on those who remain."

Since sending the letter, Justice Thomas, along with some list judges, has met lawyers in Auckland (civil), Wellington (criminal and civil) and Christchurch (criminal and civil).

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu.

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu says they are taking the concerns raised with them very seriously. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Upcoming meetings have been arranged for Hamilton, plus a further meeting in Auckland with criminal law stakeholders (a meeting was held earlier in 2023), and also in New Plymouth, Whanganui, Napier and Nelson, with others being arranged, the Chief High Court Judge said in a statement on Wednesday.

The June letter had stressed that court processes were being improved, but many pressure points were outside the courts' control, such as workforce shortages, pay and the toll from Covid-19.

"Resourcing pressures impact matters such as timely disclosure, counsel having access to clients in custody, legal aid, and the provision of health and other reports," the judges wrote.

"There is a growing shortage of criminal and family lawyers, particularly experienced ones. We are very conscious of the need to support the development of young lawyers and the future health of the profession."

The spokesperson said the recent meetings had been constructive.

"The meetings are part of ongoing communication with the legal profession that reflects the critical importance of the profession to the courts."

The Chief High Court Judge had the bonus of having had meetings already arranged before June's letter.

The Chief District Court Judge had not held meetings yet due to logistical challenges, but they would take place in coming weeks.

"Wellbeing is an issue across the sector and we are taking the concerns that have been raised with us very seriously," Judge Heemi Taumaunu said in a statement to RNZ.

"It is too soon for any solutions to have been discussed but I am looking forward to hearing from all sides."

The Law Society said it appreciated the chief judges' understanding of the pressure facing lawyers.

"Now there is a shared focus, we look forward to participating in these meetings and canvassing potential solutions."

Where to get help for lawyers:

Law Society has Practising Well initiatives which include counselling, a 'friends' panel, and various health sessions.

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