Christchurch courts receive international award for actions during Christchurch earthquakes

A court sitting on the marae

A court sitting on the marae

The District Court at Christchurch has been awarded (jointly) the prestigious Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration Incorporated 2013 Award for Excellence in Judicial Administration. This achievement is unprecedented, as it has never been made to a Court as a whole.

The award attracted nearly 40 nominations. The criteria to be satisfied by nominees were: the demonstration of innovation, an improvement of access to justice and the delivery of real benefits for the justice system.

The award has been made jointly with Justices Winkelmann and Miller. The High Court made separate nominations.

Background

As all New Zealanders know, Christchurch suffered a series of severe earthquakes during 2010 and 2011.

On 4 September 2010 at 4.35am the city was hit with a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, centred west of Christchurch. Significant property damage ensued but there was no loss of life. Whilst there was disruption for court services they were resumed in full within one week.

On 22 February 2011 at 12.51pm a magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred. This time it was centred directly under the city. The intensity and violence of the ground shaking was amongst the strongest ever recorded globally in an urban area. The widespread devastation resulted in a declaration of New Zealand’s first National State of Emergency.

185 people were killed. Tens of thousands of residential properties were affected – not only was there structural devastation but liquefaction, lateral spreading and rock fall provided their own challenges to the population. Approximately 12,000 homes will not be re-occupied. In excess of $2billion of damage was caused to city sewer, water, roading and other infrastructure. Over 70% of the central business district (CBD) was either demolished or partly demolished.

Impact on the courts

At the time, the main courthouse housed the High, District, Family, Youth and Environment Courts, as well as a number of tribunals. The Employment and Maori Land Courts were on a separate site nearby. The main courthouse comprises 20 courtrooms plus hearing rooms. It is situated in the CBD. At the time of the February 2011 earthquake, all court buildings were safely evacuated and no Ministry of Justice staff or judicial officers were killed or injured. 

The authorities set up a cordon around the CBD, which became known as the “Red Zone”. The Red Zone was manned by army personnel to admit only authorised persons. It was primarily implemented to prevent injury or loss of life, which was a possibility because of the state of damaged buildings. An ancillary purpose was to prevent looting and crime. All of the court buildings were within the Red Zone. Access to those buildings was restricted for five months. The court buildings themselves required structural and geo-technical engineering evaluation prior to any re-occupation. Some buildings were unfit for any occupation and ultimately demolished. There was a resultant disruption to normal communication channels.

Immediate District Court response

The functioning of a court system is vital to the maintenance of law and order and the protection of human rights – accordingly, the courts needed to continue to operate. Following the February 2011 incident arrangements were made for essential court services to be up and running within 24 hours. All public inquiries were diverted to a contact centre in Auckland. “Data squirt” technology was used to communicate to staff and to other court users.

An arrest court was located at the Central Police Station which was just outside the Red Zone. The court comprised a table and chair for the judge in a corridor of the police cells. This court operated daily and amid shocking conditions and continuing aftershocks, often of a magnitude of 5 or greater. Remand matters were dealt with at the Christchurch Men’s Prison some kilometres out of Christchurch, which had suffered minimal damage.

Like all those living and working in Christchurch, staff and judges operated under significant personal pressures. Not only were they carrying out a full day’s work to serve the public, they were dealing with their own personal family and property issues. In the meantime they faced the public with equanimity and professionalism. 

Industrial warehouse space in the suburbs was hired for registry personnel. The pressure on alternative sites was significant. Every business and government department in Christchurch which had been located in the CBD was competing for space. As a result court staff operated in sub-optimal conditions for months on end.

Judges had no access to their chambers and were issued with laptops and worked off their kitchen tables or in rented accommodation if their own homes had been destroyed or significantly damaged. For many months there was one room that judges could access in the staff registry space. Twenty judges competed for a space of approximately 20 square metres which housed two computer terminals. Judges did not see each other for weeks and in some cases months on end. Ancillary to this were the difficulties of travel within a broken city. What used to take minutes of travel now took significant periods. 

Longer term District Court response

Within two months, courts were operating in twelve interim sites. These included a racecourse, an Air Force museum, tennis clubrooms, golf course clubrooms, community centre boardrooms and the like. Security in many venues was an issue – security officers were spread thinly and there was no scanning equipment. Where practical, cases were shifted to provincial courts outside of Christchurch, the nearest of those was some 25 kilometres from the CBD. All jury trials were relocated to major cities in both the South and lower North Islands of New Zealand, hundreds of kilometres distant. 

Although the logistics of arranging and transferring cases to outlying courts was significant, by and large, the efforts of registry staff made that seamless. Any hierarchical divide between the courts disappeared in the devising and implementation of a centralised venue allocation system where cases were allocated to whatever venue was available and in accordance with a global priority – that is, no court took precedence over the other.

The busiest District Court (criminal summons/arrests/mentions) was established at a marae in one of the worst-hit suburbs, primarily because it had sufficient space to accommodate the court. For nearly two years this venue catered for lists exceeding 100 defendants each day.

Gradually and incrementally the main courthouse facilities were “reclaimed”, until in June 2013 the process was largely complete and the High and District Courts were able to recommence activities on a pre-earthquake basis. However, the Environment Court still operates from the jury-capable courthouse facility nearby, and the tribunals remain in an industrial area.

The resilience and lateral thinking required by judiciary and registry staff alike was extraordinary. Developing urgent and emergency processes to cater for a population of approximately 500,000 citizens was a significant task. The response of not only the judiciary and staff, but also the legal profession and those other users of the court (prosecution, Community Probation Services, victim support etc), was extraordinary. By determination, dedication and innovation an extraordinary level of access to justice in the Christchurch community was able to be maintained. Despite the huge challenges, within approximately 15 months the Christchurch District Court was operating at efficiencies equal to or better
than the statistical national averages of all District Courts.

Ongoing adaption and innovation

Significant aftershocks continued to occurr on a daily basis. On occasion the severity of these required evacuation of the courts that were operating in the main tower block, and again necessitated innovation and resilience in dealing with court users. For example, following a significant aftershock just prior to Christmas 2011, those defendants who had been remanded in custody were removed from the cells and the court was conducted on the street with two prison vans back to back, a Judge and registrar between them. Those prisoners on remand were removed from one van and bail applications were made on the street by lawyers. If successful they were processed there and then with handwritten bail documents and released. If the applications were unsuccessful, defendants moved into the other prison van and were ultimately taken to the remand prison.

The disaster and the response to it has been a catalyst to the creation of solutions which have improved the delivery of justice after the event and since restoration of “normal” services. Other innovations have included more responsive scheduling practices and a better focus on customer service, with an innovative customer service centre entry point to the existing courthouse. The use of the marae has led directly to a Rangatahi Court (Youth Court outcomes for Maori youth offenders on the marae) being introduced. Off-site file/document storage and retrieval systems have been implemented. 

Conclusion

The Christchurch earthquake disaster required an innovative response – but such a response was by no means inevitable. The Christchurch judges and court staff could have retreated and eventually provided a skeleton service using traditional resources and approaches. Instead,
an immediate collaborative and highly innovative judicial and staff-led approach was pioneered.

While the District Court (led by Judge Colin Doherty), by virtue of its size, played the lead role in responding to this difficult time, it was certainly not an exclusive one, and these successes must be seen in the context of a whole of court (judiciary and staff) response. This includes the Christchurch High Court, led by
the work of His Honour Justice Lester Chisholm, and those specialist courts which also sit
in Christchurch.

The Christchurch District Court will never be the same again. From the dust and rubble of the earthquake disaster has now emerged a new blueprint for delivering justice – in the context of the soon to be built Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct.

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