Not having a resident judge in Queenstown is causing people to plead guilty rather than facing two years of district court delays, according to Queenstown barrister Liam Collins.
The Queenstown District Court is currently covered by a visiting circuit judge from Invercargill.
But the booming population and increasing tourist numbers mean an increase in legal work with bars and restaurants staying open later, often leading to alcohol-related problems. Collins told Radio NZ
that if tourists are dragged into the local legal system, it could turn into a nightmare for them.
“If they decide to plead not guilty to a charge, they are facing a delay of up to two years,” he said.
“This means that their visas might run out and Immigration New Zealand is under no obligation to extend those visas. It means people can end up with their passports seized and no way to either legally stay in the country or leave.”
Pleading guilty could be the lesser of two evils under such circumstances.
He said that some visitors were trying to leave a cash bond with a local lawyer so they could leave the country and them come back to defend themselves in court. But Bonds have to be legally managed by the High Court and not available to defendants in District Court cases.
The Law Society said it was concerned about the delays in Queenstown and met with the Ministry of Justice through its courthouse committee regularly. Ministry of Justice figures suggest that the time taken to hear a District Court case is dropping, the average back in 2013 was 182 days but was just 166 days in 2015.
Chief District Court judge Jan-Marie Doogue said district court judges were playing their part in achieving timely delivery of justice.
“The legal process builds in some legitimate delay, such as giving parties time to seek legal advice or disclose evidence, but Judges work hard to alleviate any undue delay by finding innovative ways to reduce waiting times, notwithstanding rising case volumes and resource constraints facing court staff,” she said in a statement.
“For example Judge-led initiatives substantially reduced the age of jury trial cases in the 2014-15 financial year but since last September, for reasons beyond the control of Judges, there has been a surge in new jury trial cases coming into the system.”