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Goff calls for major reform of Court system

29 June 2005

Goff calls for major reform of Court system

Justice Minister Phil Goff says revolutionary changes are needed in court procedures to end delays in hearing cases and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Courts.

Mr Goff today welcomed recommendations for reform in pre-trial processes made in a Law Commission report released today.

"A tendency to do things in Court the way they have always been done has left too much of our court procedures in the 19th Century. They need to come into the 21st Century," Mr Goff said.

"Ninety-five per cent of criminal cases are resolved before trial but court procedures in this area have remained locked in the past.

"The tendency to have cases before the Court repeatedly adjourned has caused substantial delays in resolving cases. Requiring court appearances to deal with matters better dealt with administratively outside of Court has also clogged up the Court system.

"The result of both of these factors has been to waste the time of all of those involved in Court; delay outcomes, and undermine the effectiveness of the justice system.

"Among recent examples highlighting the problem addressed by the Law Commission was a defendant who made 11 court appearances in three months – a plea change from not guilty to guilty added nearly two months to the case's duration. Another defendant made 10 appearances, four of which were due to disclosure being incomplete, before being discharged without conviction.

"The Law Commission has proposed wide-ranging reforms that have the potential to achieve dramatic improvements in this area.

"Prosecutors, defence counsel, judges, and court staff need to seize this opportunity to achieve a more effective and efficient court system and to improve the quality of our justice system.

"The report recommends important changes designed to:
- Promote early decisions by Police Prosecution Services;
- Take issues that don't require judicial discretion out of court;
- Limit the number of adjournments;
- Require defendants to identify disputed issues before trial; and,
- Provide sanctions for poor performance and non-compliance with Court requirements.

"Some will be controversial and require greater scrutiny and input before being put into effect. But arguments against change will have to rely on more than vested interest and reluctance to move away from old traditions.

"These recommended changes do not stand on their own with respect to major reform of the Court system.

"The Criminal Procedure Bill, currently before Parliament, involves radical reform of preliminary hearings and disclosure. Preliminary hearings take up around 5700 sitting hours – or around 10 per cent – of District Court time.

"Automatic committal on the papers, unless there are specific reasons for oral hearings, will reduce undue delays; better utilise court resources, and save witnesses and victims from having to make multiple court appearances.

"The 2005 Budget provision of $156 million for the implementation of the Baseline Review of Courts and the Ministry of Justice includes $59 million for IT infrastructure and capability; $25 million for improving court operations, and $25 million for improving staff and management resources.

"Operational improvements already underway, such as electronic rather than manual recording of court evidence, and the Wellington list court pilot will also achieve greater efficiency in court.

"Taken together these reforms will achieve big savings in Court time and costs; significantly reduce delays in cases being heard, and ensure a more efficient and fair justice system," Mr Goff said.

ENDS

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