Govt rejects law commission view that structural change needed
The Government is not convinced major changes to the structure of courts are needed but has ordered officials to look into this further.
However, Justice Minister Phil Goff and Courts Minister Rick Barker said its focus was first on improving efficiency in the courts system rather than planning radical changes to its structure.
The Government yesterday released its response to a report by the Law Commission that recommended a raft of measures aimed at making the courts simpler, quicker and cheaper for those going through them.
The commission released its report in March.
Among its many recommendations was axing the district court and replacing it with a community court to deal with minor cases — the prime reason for many of the current backlogs — and specialist criminal and civil courts to deal with more serious cases.
It recommended fines for minor offences so people do not have to attend court, a formal caution scheme for first-time offenders — keeping them out of the courts — and strengthened systems of information and legal advice.
The report also recommended restricting time-consuming jury trials, extending name suppression in some circumstances and opening up the Family Court and Youth Court to greater media scrutiny.
Mr Goff previously signalled that the controversial recommendations restricting jury trials and extending name suppression rights were unlikely to fly.
In a joint statement with Mr Goff issued yesterday, Mr Barker said the Government accepted improvements were needed to ensure court users — whether they be victims, defendants, witnesses or jurors — felt their cases were being dealt with quickly and efficiently.
But neither he nor Mr Goff were persuaded structural changes — such as the establishment of community courts — were necessary.
“The Government considers that any proposal to change the current structure of the courts would carry with it a significant degree of risk, and would also be likely to entail significant costs,” the Government’s response said.
However, the ministers said officials were doing further work on these proposals.
But before considering radical changes to the courts structure, it needed first to ensure the underlying processes of the court system were working efficiently, Mr Barker said.
“To that end, the ministry is conducting a baseline review examining whether current levels of service are appropriate, whether there are any major issues with those services and the cost of making improvements in service delivery,” he said.
The Government has flatly rejected the commission’s proposals for one state agency to co-ordinate initial legal advice, state-managed mediation, community consultation groups, raising the threshold for jury trials, and name suppression in criminal cases.
It said in its response, tabled in Parliament yesterday, that the state provided initial legal advice through a variety of services and it considered the problems identified by the commission could be solved by people being made more aware of, and being directed to, these services.
It said that establishing community consultation groups could create unrealistic expectations and conflict in communities.
On the issue of mediation, the Government said there was merit in exploring ways to improve co-ordination of state-managed mediation services but did not agree these services should be extended to general disputes under $50,000 as recommended by the commission.
The commission recommended raising the threshold for an accused’s right to elect a jury trial to offences with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment or more.
The Government said that while the threshold for jury trial in New Zealand might seem low it was in effect higher because there were very few offences with penalties of six months or one year.
The Government has legislation before Parliament that allows for trial by judge alone, and majority verdicts.
On the issue of suppression, the Government said it considered existing laws to be adequate.
The Government said it had initiated major improvements in courts systems, including a comprehensive review of the infringement system.
Recommendations it would address included: a review of pathways for appealing cases; and improvements to access to legal information and advice — via a “meet and greet’ service at courthouses, an 0800 telephone service, and a legal information strategy.
The Justice Ministry had also been instructed to look at the operation of tribunals with a view to creating a unified tribunals structure, the ministers said.
The commission recommended the Disputes Tribunal be open to the public, which the Government agreed with.