8 Dec 2023

Project to reduce court cases backlog hit with 'staffing and resourcing challenges'

8:35 am on 8 December 2023
040714. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Wellington High Court. Courtroom 1.

File photo. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

A new way to unjam the country's logjammed courts, the Backlog Project, now called Priority-based Scheduling, has helped a bit - but ran into its own shortages, of staff, communications, targets and direction, even of police cells.

The experiment in relieving the mounting pressure on getting justice, cut the backlog by a thousand cases or 7 percent, to 13,000 nationwide.

But it increased the workloads and stress on some lawyers, police prosecutors and court staff, a Justice Ministry review newly released to RNZ said.

Nevertheless, it has been adopted permanently, amid desperate measures to cut the escalating numbers of people held in custody on remand.

The project used priority-based scheduling to put more resources into the busiest courts, from May till August, especially around Auckland.

Yet reviewers still do not know if the Backlog Project delivered enough bang for the buck.

"It is difficult to say ... as there were no key performance indicators or benchmarks for success provided pre-rollout," it said.

"There was no clear target for the number of cases to be cleared."

The review faulted the planning, resourcing and "lack of clear communication about the purpose, targets, and data of the pilot program".

It prioritised trials over sentencing, so the number of people on remand in custody kept rising throughout.

Consequently, "Corrections hasn't seen a positive impact", the review said.

On the upside, collaboration improved, and court staff and police said their outsourcing of file analyses and identifying gaps got better.

Read the document here

The Youth Court got shifted away from Manukau District Court, with "huge benefits" for rangatahi.

Waitākere District Court introduced double sessions for sentencing, and Manukau stood out by boosting its sentencing rate by over 50 percent.

The review set out to test if the new approach put too much load on the various agencies, or if it was sustainable long term - and found fundamental misgivings.

"All agency's [sic] expressed some uncertainty about their ability to adapt to priority-based scheduling in the long term due to staffing and resourcing challenges," it said.

Lawyers found it difficult to get around all the courts.

Prosecutors had to handle more appearances with less preparation time.

There was "a lack of police prosecutors, police cells, and probation staff", even though police pulled in help from frontline officers.

Despite that, priority-based scheduling has now been adopted for good.

Police in response had launched a $26 million plan to add more prosecutors.

Corrections said to adapt, it needed "adequate staffing and a clearer understanding" of the Justice Ministry's goals.

For the justice sector, the new approach remains key even though the Backlog Project did not succeed in cutting numbers on remand. These are up 600 for the year, to 3800, and are now the major driver of growth in the prison population.

The courts had been aiming to add more dates for sentencing people on remand or bail in late 2023, and saw the project as a way to prepare for that.

But it could have run better.

From the start "many respondents felt that they were not sufficiently prepared" or were left out of the loop, the review said. The storms early in the year had not helped.

Oranga Tamariki only found out about the Backlog Project from police, not the courts.

Corrections and Justice staff got their wires crossed too often. "It was realised that MOJ had not contacted the right people to gather necessary information."

Workloads went up, triggering "concerns about staff wellbeing and retention".

The curse of "redundant meetings" cropped up.

"Outsourcing of work [by police] also incurred significant expenses," the review said.

In Auckland, the caseload of Public Defence Service lawyers rose 9 percent, compared to just 1 percent elsewhere.

"Increased activity affected their ability to take on new work, which is a risk due to volume-based targets."

Duty lawyers faced problems finding replacements for their rosters, and to take on urgent assignments, and increased demand as more case review hearings took place at Auckland Court.

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