The Law Society has issued a request for urgent attention to be given to the number of judges available to undertake District Court business, following the criticism of Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue who has been reported about the District Court situation, requiring redeployment of judges to handle a backlog.
This follows her stinging criticism of the way in which the Court has been left in the latest NZ Law Society “LawPoints” letter.
A serious backlog had arisen particularly in the Family Court where there were about 8000 Care of Children Act cases waiting to be heard, according to the Bar Association.
“It shows how serious the matter has become when the Chief District Court Judge publicly states that the unrelenting pressure on judges in the Family Court is now creating unacceptable delay and that something has to give,” the convenor of the Law Society Criminal Law Committee, Steve Bonnar QC, says.
“We clearly have arrived at a situation where access to justice in the District Court is under threat. The Chief Judge is planning to divert judicial resource from the criminal jurisdiction to the Family Court. While this may temporarily relieve pressure in the Family Court, it will just increase delays and pressure in the criminal courts. It is not a long-term fix.
“It should not have come to this. The impact of the changes wrought by the Family Court reforms of 2014 has been exacerbated by a law change last year which effectively imposed a sinking lid on the number of available acting judges.
“The Law Society is fully supportive of the Chief Judge and the judiciary and we call upon the Government and responsible government agencies to give this urgent attention. All New Zealanders suffer when barriers are put in the way of accessing justice.”
Mr Bonnar says there are simply not enough District Court judges and the solution appears to be to appoint more.
“The changes introduced by the District Court Act 2016 last year meant a reduction in the number of acting Judges who could be appointed. There is also a fixed limit on the number of permanent judges. It is clear that this has not worked.”
Prior to the passing of the District Court Act 2016, although there was cap on the number of permanent judges who could be appointed, lawyers as well as retired judges could be appointed as acting judges
In real terms, there has been a fall in the total number of judges sitting in the District Court. In 2017 the total number of all judges was 179. By the end of May 2018, this will have fallen 167 judges. The new cap in the current legislation is 160.