New District Court Act said to add to problems

by Sol Dolor02 Nov 2016
A reform to the District Courts may bring about new problems rather than streamline the system.
The new District Court Act increases the cap on the court's number of judges, but it also sets a new condition for so-called acting judge posts.
Limiting who can be qualified to act as one of the extra 20 acting judges for the District Court is argued by experts to burden the already-stressed system.
Bar Association president Clive Elliott QC described to Radio New Zealand just how much acting judges make the District Court agile.
"If there's a need in a particular court, or a particular region, or there needs to be an effort to try and remove a backlog in cases, the acting judges were able to actually provide that roving resource," Elliott says.
"And I think the concern is that if there are fewer acting judges and less flexibility, that there's going to really be a build up of pressure," he adds.
The Association president noted that there are already myriad and burgeoning problems in the court and the act, while marginally increasing the cap, will limit those qualified to act as acting judge.
Currently, there's a cap of 156 on the number of judges in the District Court system and this number already includes posts like Chief Coroner, the Environment Court and the Children's Commissioner, Radio New Zealand notes.
The reform will increase the number which includes by four. However, it limits acting judges by stipulating that they should be under 75 years of age.
The danger of losing flexibility comes as the justice system already experiences problems, Elliott stressed.
“There is a difficulty getting hearing time,” he said.
“There are people on remand for longer than they should be and I think the difficulty we have is that the courts are at capacity and the concern is that if there is an effective cap or moratorium on appointing district court judges, the problem is going to get worse, not better,” he added.
Furthermore, while Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue said recently that the number of criminal cases in district courts had fallen since 2009, she noted that judges have seen an uptick in serious Category 3 cases which are just below the cut-off for the High Court.
In the three years to July, Category 3 matters grew by one quarter, Doogue noted in a recently Auckland District Law Society newsletter column.
"Last year the active cases of this type grew faster than active cases overall. By the end of last year, these most serious cases accounted for more than half of the active criminal cases in the district courts,” the top judge wrote.
"A Category 3 case takes more than twice as long to proceed as a less serious case. Even a small increase in serious cases can slow down the process, and this compounds over time to balloon the number of criminal cases before the court," she said.

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