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Status Hearings research released

4 August 2004

Status Hearings research released

Reports published today by the Law Commission and Ministry of Justice examine current pre-trial criminal processes and suggest that reform is needed. The two publications are complementary.

Status Hearings Evaluation: A New Zealand Study of Pre-trial Hearings in Criminal Cases is a joint research study of status hearings by the Ministry of Justice and Law Commission. Status Hearings are pre-trial reviews held in most District Courts if defendants plead not guilty in summary criminal cases.

Reforming Criminal Pre-trial Processes, a Law Commission preliminary paper, discusses the research findings and proposes options for more efficient and fair processes. The Law Commission is seeking submissions on the proposed reforms and will present its final recommendations early in 2005.

Pre-trial hearings in the criminal jurisdiction are intended to reduce the incidence of cancelled and postponed proceedings, which are costly, disruptive and can cause considerable distress to the parties involved in the proceedings. Status hearings were a judicial initiative to solve these problems and to ensure defendants enter an informed plea to appropriate charges as soon as possible. However, the research suggests there is still room for improvement.

Status Hearings Evaluation: A New Zealand Study of Pre-trial Hearings in Criminal Cases looked at hearings in five District Courts, and callovers in one District Court. Interviews were held with defendants, complainants, judges, defence counsel, police prosecutors, victim advisers, caseflow managers and probation officers, and information was also obtained from the taped records of the courts.

Many participants thought status hearings meant a better use of resources overall, and a saving of time, especially defended hearing time. They were seen as encouraging early resolutions to a number of cases, reducing the stress of waiting for a defended hearing and producing better outcomes.

Hearings are seen as a focal point for case preparation by some counsel, and a number of participants found sentence indications to be helpful. They also provide an opportunity for complainants to have some input and be part of the process.

Although status hearings have led to some benefits, concerns were also voiced. The research suggests that a range of matters need to be addressed, including the need for more operational guidelines or statutory provisions on sentence indications, pre-status hearings plea and charge discussions, and the roles of participants. Also of vital importance is the issue of access to justice and rights for complainants and defendants, especially in relation to unrepresented defendants and Maori and Pacific Island participants.

Voicing conclusions drawn from Reforming Criminal Pre-trial Processes, Law Commission President Justice Robertson said, “it is clear that some of the problems status hearings were designed to mend still pervade the process, and that further changes to pre-trial processes are required, both to ensure fairness to complainants and defendants, and to reduce delays and make optimal use of Court and judicial resources.

“In short, the current system often fails witnesses, defendants and victims. It takes too long to get to trial and there are too many pre-trial meetings. There are insufficient incentives to secure the speedy resolution of everyone’s interests, and we need a new approach to make the process work more effectively.”

The key objective of pre-trial processes is to ensure that cases are dealt with expeditiously and efficiently, consistent with fundamental principles of fairness. Where people enter a guilty plea they should do so at the earliest practicable opportunity. Where cases proceed to trial, the issues should be identified well in advance so that the number of appearances before the judge is reduced to a minimum.

“Pre-trial processes must be designed to promote early consideration of evidence and charges laid, provision of adequate legal advice for defendants, early and full disclosure of the case, pre-trial discussion between prosecution and defence about the charges and facts, and early preparation of the defence case,” said Justice Robertson. The paper proposes a principled framework for pre-trial criminal processes consisting of an initial hearing, a standard adjournment for six weeks and a pre-trial hearing. Generally only two judicial hearings would be required before trial, and adjournments would only be granted if necessary to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial. The Law Commission welcomes submissions on the detailed proposals in their paper.

The Law Commission discussion paper Reforming Criminal Pre-trial Processes (Preliminary Paper 55) is available from www.lawcom.govt.nz

The joint research report Status Hearings Evaluation: A New Zealand Study of Pre-trial Hearings in Criminal Cases is available from www.justice.govt.nz


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