LawFuel – The Law Jobs and Legal NewsWire – Electronic courtrooms were the not-too-distant vision for the New Zealand legal system, Courts Minister, Rick Barker, told a meeting of ADLS Council. He said that electronic courtrooms would make full use of technology to enhance the services provided.
“This courtroom is not based on paper or maybe even physical locations. Instead documents will be filed electronically, hearings could be held in cyberspace, and judgments issued electronically.”
Mr Barker attended the meeting to deliver a speech and hold discussions with council members. The MP, a non-lawyer, said that when he became Minister for Courts Affairs in 2002, he knew “next to nothing” about the court system. He accordingly decided to go on a factfinding mission, travelling out of Wellington to meet court staff and tour many court buildings.
“I saw neglected courthouses. I saw staff, who were clearly dedicated and hardworking, but squashed into overcrowded buildings that were not fit for the purpose. I saw equipment that would not have looked out of place at MOTAT.
I saw staff swamped by mountains of files and paper, and, most amazing of all, I saw court staff creating court documents using carbon paper.” Mr Barker said that it became obvious to him that courts had almost survived untouched by the 20th century. His vision for the courts, and in particular for the services which the Government provided to support the courts, had been born in those first few months.
“Courthouses, in my vision, are buildings that can be both a cornerstone for New Zealand communities as well as convey the appropriate status of the constitutional role of courts. Courts are an independent arm of democracy, therefore the support of judicial decision-making is a key tenet of any democracy.”
Mr Barker discussed the measures he had overseen to improve court processes. These included the 2004 Baseline Review of the Ministry of Justice, which led to the Government investing $156 million in a Service Improvement Programme to remedy earlier lack of investment, as well as the Infrastructure Upgrade Programme to modernise IT hardware.
Mr Barker noted that he had recently launched e-filing of infringements, representing the first foray into the electronic court system. It was expected to save the court system from having to deal with more than one million pieces of paper a year.
Video conferencing services were now available in seven locations around New Zealand, and the ministry intended to explore the benefits of expanding the technology to other types of hearings such as criminal cases. The minister outlined progress with the tribunal reform programme, which involves special jurisdictions, the ministry’s policy team and the Law Commission working together.
Mr Barker said that New Zealand’s tribunals were ad hoc and he wanted to see their systems improved. He had visited a number of other jurisdictions to see how they organised their tribunals. Many were implementing unifying structures.
“Tribunals are an integral part of my vision for the court structure in New Zealand. For a large number of New Zealanders, their sole experience of the justice system is through using a tribunal. I see the Tribunal Reform Programme as a fantastic opportunity to significantly improve the service that tribunals can provide for all users, including tribunal members, administrative staff, and the general public.”
Mr Barker said that the next milestone for the reform programme would be a report back to Cabinet by June 2008 on the appropriate structure for tribunals, and a set of guidelines for the establishment of future tribunals. The minister referred to the ministry’s National Transcription Services centre he launched last year. It would provide expanded evidence recording and transcription services, substantially speeding up hearings.
Mr Barker said that the ministry had implemented a structure to support continuous improvements in district courts and a key aspect of that was the court review process. All of the courts in the Auckland area had been reviewed, and the ministry was in the process of re-examining those courts to determine further improvements.
Goals included reducing turnover, better engagement with stakeholders, better use of judicial time, and ensuring best practice against benchmarks. Mr Barker said that both he and the ministry recognised the constraints imposed on practitioners by the current state of Auckland courts.
Additional jury and multi-defendant capable courtrooms would start to come on line in 2009, representing a start to addressing the problems posed by the somewhat cramped conditions around Auckland.
The minister noted that Auckland was experiencing greater growth in workloads than courts in other parts of the country, with 66 per cent of all district court jury trials in New Zealand held either at Auckland or Manukau.
That growth was forecast to continue but there was little scope for further physical expansion of court buildings. The Auckland Service Delivery Strategy aimed to increase capacity by moving out some services that did not need to be in courthouses, and co-locating compatible services into specialist facilities.
Mr Barker said that a number of proposals had been developed. These included a justice precinct concept, involving jurisdiction registries being separate but close together. The current proposals were primarily focused on the district court collections and specialist courts and tribunal services. Separate work was underway to ensure appropriate future facilities for the Auckland High Court.
Proposals included service centres to handle bulk customer inquiries, high volume correspondence, applications and some collections work. Civil and Family Centres could consolidate non-criminal caseloads into dedicated facilities. The existing district courthouses at Albany, Waitakere, Auckland and Manukau would then focus primarily on criminal work, including Youth Court.
Mr Barker said that a medium-term strategy proposed the consolidation of indictable caseloads into purpose-built facilities, following changes already in the pipeline for Auckland and Manukau.
“What is being proposed is quite extensive and will probably involve a significant amount of change. This type of change does not occur overnight. To progress the strategy, we need to ensure the courts community is comfortable with the work as it progresses over the coming years.”
The detailed design stage would progress in 2008.