No quick fix for District Court delays

The District Court is getting extra judges but Acting Chief District Court Judge Denise Clark explains that greater complexity in cases coming before the court means reducing the backlog will take time.

J Denise Clark

Acting Chief District Court Judge Denise Clark

The criminal justice system has created intense debate in the past year, mostly with a view to constructive reform.

The discussion, brain-storming and soul-searching have occupied a lot of minds and media space, as they should.

All the while, the District Court has been going about its business. The daily grind of administering justice for the thousands of people coming through our doors goes on, amidst the “bigger picture” policy debate raging around us.

On the front line, demand for court time and concerns about chronic delay and aged cases has not waned, and coping with workload and juggling resources is a daily challenge. The District Court is looking forward to some cavalry arriving in the coming months in the form of 12 extra fulltime judicial positions announced in the Budget.

Although the extra judges represent light on the horizon, the new intake will restore judicial numbers only to where they were in late 2017. Court users understandably eager for better timeframes, therefore, need to be realistic about the pace and scale of improvement the extra resource can provide.

It will take time to make inroads into existing workloads. Such is the backlog that the time it takes for cases to progress through the criminal court is forecast to get worse before it gets better.

The pressure is not because of an increase in business coming through the doors of our criminal courts. In fact new cases in that jurisdiction of the District Court remain relatively steady. Rather, it is a rise in the tally and profile of active cases. Their number has reached one of the highest levels for seven years.

Not surprisingly, the worst backlogs are in the serious and most complex part of the criminal court’s work: category 3 cases, and especially in category 3 judge-alone trials. The latter are taking 28% longer to dispose of than they did four years ago.

Although the number of new cases is falling slightly among category 1 and 2 offences, active category 3 cases in March reached their highest point in 10 years.

Overall, the District Court proportionally is dealing with more serious, complex criminal charges which are considerably more taxing. When cases are weighted for complexity, the overall new business for the court is calculated to be 7% higher than four years ago when we had 15 more judges.

Aged complex cases – family defended applications and judge-alone and jury trials more than a year old – have grown by half in four years.

The number of events needed to dispose of a category 3 case has risen due to defendants pleading guilty later in the process.

And the time between events in the criminal court is getting longer. This is forecast to deteriorate further from an average of 28 days in March to 30 days by the end of the year.

The main drivers of the longer time-frame have been a shortage of court resources including police prosecutors, the previously-steady decline in judge numbers since a tighter cap was imposed on judge numbers in 2017 and redeployment of judicial time to the Family Court to address delays there.

This analysis will confirm what many in the legal profession have been experiencing, especially those members of the Bar frustrated at wait times for sentencings and trials.

Inevitably these pressures have impacted on people who are entitled to their day in court, many of whom are waiting from behind bars. My colleagues and I are acutely aware of the fundamental right to timely access to justice, and we are doing everything within our power and resources to minimise delays.

Advocacy by the profession in support of access to justice is only natural and I have noticed remarkable patience which I put down to a common concern to maintain public confidence in the courts.

Whatever the public debate about the District Court, the Chief Judge’s statutory obligation is to ensure orderly and efficient conduct of the court’s business.

In the family jurisdiction, last year’s decision to reallocate judicial time to the Family Court is paying dividends in terms of Care of Children Act (COCA) cases. The average disposal age of defended COCA applications has dropped 9%, or 35 days, during the year, despite 14% growth in active cases.

It is difficult to make these sorts of inroads across the whole District Court and I am conscious that prioritising stretched resource has seen gains in some areas at the expense of others.

In other aspects, the Family Court remains under great pressure. It too has been labouring under an increase in the more complex defended applications, which leapt by nearly 17% in just over a year.

Against this backdrop, recruiting extra judges is an important first step to improving timeframes but this is not the whole picture, especially when resource pressures have had a cumulative effect, involving support staff and infrastructure, and are influenced by the activities of other agencies.

For now, District Court judges will continue to work with local justice sector networks to identify and focus on pressure points. And they will continue working with the Ministry of Justice on effective scheduling and with police prosecutors on improving preparation for case review hearings to avoid unnecessary delays.

I appeal to the profession to ensure all parties are prepared for court, and that they play their part in supporting the Chief Judge’s drive for quality case management memoranda.

That way, when the time comes to allocate the extra judicial resource, it stands a better chance of having maximum impact on improving access to justice for the New Zealand public.

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