Almost two years after the Court’s first sitting, its five judges, regarded as the high priests of the legal profession, have yet to tackle a full workload.
In the past 17 months, the Court has delivered only 17 substantive judgments, many of which are not more than 30 paragraphs.
The Court replaced the Privy Council as New Zealand’s final appellate court in October 2004.
Ironically, New Zealand’s next-highest court, the Court of Appeal, with eight judges, is snowed under with cases.
One of New Zealand’s top lawyers, who asked not to be named, said he knew the Supreme Court judges would prefer to have more to do.
“It probably frustrates the hell out of them. These are people who have spent their whole working lives overcommitted and under stress. Now, probably the most stressful thing is that they are not sitting on many days,” he said.
“But it’s almost a vote of confidence in the court below because the Supreme Court is refusing leave (to appeal) except in very important cases. It looks like it’s not doing very much, but structurally it’s doing the right thing.”
Former ACT MP Steven Franks, who opposed setting up the Supreme Court, said he had heard “mutterings” from the Court of Appeal about its workload compared with the higher court.
A prominent Christchurch lawyer said he was aware of the frustration felt by Supreme Court judges about their workload, “but for all that, the amount of work is increasing”.
“You don’t want to be judging too soon. It’s better those frustrations than being too busy and not doing it well enough,” he said.