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Criminal prosecution reform announced


Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice

Hon Matt Robson
Minister for Courts

Media Statement
2 November 2000

Criminal prosecution reform announced


Justice Minister Phil Goff and Courts Minister Matt Robson welcomed the Law Commission’s report on the Criminal Prosecution system in New Zealand released today and announced the Government's intention to make two changes in the area.

Preliminary Hearing Reform in the Criminal Courts

"The Government agrees with the Law Commission's recommendation that preliminary hearings in the criminal court be reformed to improve the efficiency of case management in the justice system," Mr Goff and Mr Robson said.
Drafting will begin on a Criminal Prosecutions Bill to be introduced into the House next year and there will an opportunity for the public to make submissions during the Select Committee process.
"It is proposed that committal for trial should now be done largely by the prosecution presenting written evidence of the case against the defendant to the court, rather than the court hearing oral evidence.
"Currently, preliminary hearings, also known as depositions hearings, occur in all serious criminal cases. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must produce enough evidence to show that the defendant has a case to answer. If the court finds that there is enough evidence, the case is put down, or ‘committed’, for a full trial.

"Research indicates that depositions hearings are not achieving some of their supposed functions - to filter weak cases or encourage appropriate early guilty pleas. They are an expensive and inefficient means of providing some criminal disclosure.

"In 1996, preliminary hearings consumed 989 hours of District Court Judge sitting time and 3,539 hours of court time presided over by Justices.
"Preliminary hearings also involve the time of Police prosecutors and defence counsel, with attendant legal aid costs. The preliminary hearing also imposes a need to schedule court time, and ensure that all participants are available. This can slow down the process, creating delay in getting matters to trial. In addition, conducting an oral preliminary hearing can mean that the victim of the offence has to give evidence twice, placing extra stress on the victim.
"However, the proposed reforms make allowance for oral preliminary hearings to still occur, on application from the defence, in the relatively few cases where they are really needed.

Establishment of a Statutory Criminal Disclosure Regime
"Coupled with preliminary hearing reform, the government intends to legislate changes to the regime governing the disclosure of information in criminal cases.

"Criminal disclosure is the process whereby, from the time of laying a charge until the exhaustion of rights of appeal, the prosecution provides all relevant information regarding its case against a defendant to that defendant, in order to allow a defence to be established.

"For various reasons, the current situation is unsatisfactory. Most seriously, it relies on the request of the defendant, disadvantaging an unrepresented or poorly represented defendant, and there is no time-tabling of disclosure, other than the requirement that any request under the OIA or Privacy Act must be answered within 20 working days.

"The lack of a timetable can result in late disclosure, leading to costly adjournments or, at worst, injustice.

"The new regime is intended to be consistent nation-wide, clear, and enforceable, and to improve timeliness and case management. This will clarify the legal duties the prosecution has to disclose details of the case against a defendant in a timely fashion before trial.

"These duties will be enforceable by the courts, which may also issue timetabling orders. It would have two phases: 'initial disclosure' before any plea is made and 'full disclosure' after a guilty plea or election for trial by jury.

"Calls for these two changes to be made are now more than a decade old. We are confident that they will contribute to a fairer, more efficient and more effective court process.

ENDS

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