Time for transformation, says chief judge Taumaunu

Newly-appointed Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu is accustomed to breaking new ground.

Chief District Court

 Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu

One of the key movers and shakers behind the development of marae-based Rangatahi courts in 2008, the new chief is now intent on answering calls for transformative change.

He wants to take lessons from the principles and best practice used in the specialist and therapeutic courts developed in the district court such as the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (AODT) to improve court processes throughout the country.

Judge Taumaunu’s aim is to mainstream elements of the individualised approach of these specialist courts so all New Zealanders using the district court feel they have been understood and treated fairly.

“If you think about the state of play as we speak in this country, it’s a time where we are hearing unprecedented calls for transformative change to the justice system.

“People are consistently saying things that seem to me to translate into the idea that they are coming to the court in whatever manner that is – as a defendant or victims of crime, or as a parent or guardian in the family jurisdiction – and across the board there seems to be a sense that they are coming to court and feeling unheard and misunderstood, or not understood at all, with the result being that they are feeling they are not receiving a fair hearing in the district court.”

Judge Taumaunu emphasises the plan isn’t to replicate the current specialist and therapeutic courts or to superimpose their processes onto the current district court structure. For one thing the cost would be prohibitive.

But a major piece of work will soon be underway to determine how the best of these processes might be adapted.

“That’s where the best-practice lessons need to be distilled by experts in the field,” Judge Taumaunu says, “and we need to have some very careful consideration given to how we might take those best-practice principles and apply them across the board in a way that continues to allow us to conduct the business of the court in an orderly and efficient manner.”

“That’s a piece of work that will need to be done. What is the best way we can achieve this vision? There’s a big challenge involved here that’s recognised but there’s also an intention on my part to lead the bench in this direction.”

Judge Taumaunu’s team of experts will likely include judges who are already leading specialist and therapeutic courts, but he says he will need to consult more widely.

He says he’s confident about the vision and will encourage the bench to take on this challenge.

“We are going to have to be realistic. We’re dealing with a finite pool of resources and there are many competing demands for them.

“Many considerations will need to be taken into account. But I will be guided by some very fundamental principles. They’re to do with improving access to justice for all people who come to the court, improving the delivery of equitable treatment for all those people who are affected by the business of our court, and working on improving the procedural and substantive fairness that’s involved in the decisions we are making and affecting the lives of everyday New Zealanders.

“Ultimately, the Chief District Court Judge has the statutory role of ensuring the orderly conduct of the business of the court.

“The district court is where 95% of justice in New Zealand is dispensed and is the largest court in Australasia.

“So, there are some major concerns about these consistent themes that are coming from these calls for transformative change,” he says. “And it’s really a matter for the district court now to develop and deliver, in a very calm and measured way, a response to those calls for change.”

This is what underpins his vision, Judge Taumaunu says. It is all about ensuring ordinary New Zealanders who have contact with the court can benefit from the lessons being learned in our specialist and therapeutic courts.

Some of these moves are already underway.

A pilot scheme in Porirua, extending some of the approaches in the Youth Court to young adult offenders between the ages of 18 and 25, was recently announced by Principal Youth Court Judge John Walker (LawNews 20 September).

The initiative is based on monitoring done on the impact of neuro-disability, mental illness, intellectual disability and acquired brain injury on young offenders. Forty percent of those appearing in the district court have an acquired brain injury, Judge Walker says.

Meanwhile, across in the therapeutic courts, the pilot AODT courts run by Judges Lisa Tremewan (Waitakere) and Ema Aitken (Auckland) are still waiting to hear from Justice Minister Andrew Little about their future status.

These courts, with a client base of high-risk/high-dependency offenders with major drug and/or alcohol addictions, are designed to divert selected offenders away from prison sentences and into judicially-supervised treatment programs (LawNews 14 June).

It is open to offenders who plead guilty and the intervention happens presentence. Regular court appearances (usually every two weeks) are required and the sessions are highly interactive.

Civil jurisdiction
Another area of likely transformation is civil action in the district court.

This is linked with moves on several fronts to improve access to justice. Attorney-General David Parker says he wants to see more use of the district court to resolve civil disputes rather than litigants having to resort to more costly high court claims.

Judge Taumaunu says the district court has a key constitutional role to play in ensuring disputes can be resolved in a cost-effective way.

“From that starting point, the obvious calls for change are concerned about the feeling that the processes in the District Court are out of the reach of ordinary New Zealanders because of the sense that it’s uneconomical to litigate claims that don’t reach a certain threshold,” he says.

“The district court will have to strive to ensure the procedural requirements attached to the proceedings before the court are proportionate to the value and complexity of the proceedings.

“The focus will have to be on improving the processes to ensure they are fit for what they’re designed to achieve. This is to ensure cost-effective access for those who resort to the court for the dispute resolution functions we provide ….. It is really one of the ways we enhance respect for the rule of law.”

He is also hoping for a few more judges, specifically the 12 new appointments announced in this year’s Budget.

“I am waiting for the Attorney-General to authorise the commencement of that process,” he says.

Marae justice
Chief Judge Taumaunu, Ngati Porou and Ngai Tahu, was first appointed to the Bench in 2004.

The first Rangatahi court he helped establish was set up on the Te Poho o Rawhiri marae near Gisborne four years later, after consultation with the legal profession, tribal groups and other stakeholders.

There had been a strong move by local lawyers and others working in the youth justice system to try something different.

“Many of the lawyers had been working in the system for decades and had observed and acted for young people who turned into fathers and grandfathers,” Judge Taumaunu says.

“Successive generations of those clients were ending up in the youth court and graduating to the district court and ending up spending long times in prison.”

More than 90% of those appearing before the Gisborne court were of Maori descent.

“So, the idea was developed that we should try to move the process to a marae and to incorporate te reo and tikanga, and to draw on the strength of the community by engaging with the local kuia and kaumatua and with marae people to support the process and the young people,” Judge Taumaunu says.

“The law that was applied was exactly the same [as in other courts] and still is, but the process is different. It emphasises the incorporation of tikanga and te reo and has meant the court can engage more readily with the young people and families…. This has enabled the legal system to have confidence that the recognition of the two founding cultures of this country are a very important thing for us to work on and develop.”

Since the Gisborne Youth Court offered a marae option to young people who admitted their offending 11 years ago, 14 more marae-based Rangatahi courts have been set up throughout the country and two Pasifika courts based on the same model.

Judge Taumaunu says it’s important these courts be marae-based rather than in traditional courtrooms.

“It’s important to remember that before the advent of the legal system as we know it, justice in this country, which is tikanga-based, was all conducted on the marae. So, it does give proper recognition to the founding cultures.”

On leaving school, Judge Taumaunu joined the army but was inspired to become a lawyer after reading the works of celebrated Maori lawyer and politician, Sir Apirana Ngata, who was also Ngati Porou.

“I decided to follow in his footsteps,” he says. “Not necessarily in an identical fashion but certainly in terms of pursuing a law degree and being of benefit to my community.

“Ultimately that’s pretty much the way it’s worked out.”

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