Hi-tech upgrade for courts

By Sandra Conchie

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Remand prisoners will be able to appear before a Tauranga judge without leaving jail as part of a national $27.8 million technology upgrade.

New audio-visual links (AVL) between prisons and courts are being rolled out across the country and mean prisoners can stay in prison and appear before the courts using television screens. Defendants will be able to see and hear what is happening in the court and see most of the public gallery who will also see and hear them.

The changes, expected to be introduced in Tauranga in September next year, will save money because fewer prisoners will need to be transported from remand cells to courts. The link allows prisoners to interact with the court via a television screen installed inside the prison.

It will be used for jury trial callover hearings, bail applications, suppression hearings, police list appearances, and post-committal appearances. It will not be used for trials or defended hearings.

Corrections Minister Anne Tolley and Courts Minister Chester Burrows say there are enormous benefits to be gained by using audio-visual links to manage daily court workloads.

The new technology, being used in Mt Eden, Waikeria, Christchurch Men's and Whanganui Prisons and installed in Auckland, Hamilton, and Manukau District Courts, had already saved more than 8000 external prisoner trips to and from courts, said Mrs Tolley.

About 40,000 people in prisons on remand make court appearances across the country each year, and the new technology is expected to be used in a large number of those cases.

Mr Burrows said the cost to introduce the links to Tauranga Court is commercially sensitive because it will go out to tender, but the nationwide budget for the two-year rollout expansion plan was $27.8 million, with connected courts able to link with connected prisons anywhere in the country.

He said the Government's drive to modernise the court system was about using technology to deliver court services in ways which were better, faster, cheaper, easier and more convenient.

Tauranga's executive judge Judge Phillip Connell told the Bay of Plenty Times the changes would have huge benefits.

"On a practical level we notice as judges it saves time, energy, money and from the prisoner's viewpoint it is a more humane process and has huge implications in not only reducing costs, but improving the management of a judge's daily court workload.

Judge Connell sits in Hamilton where AVL has been used for two years.

"AVL in Hamilton has been extremely successful and its use has been steadily increasing to the point where we now use it for about 99 per cent of potential cases. People on remand often ask to be dealt with by audio-visual link, and I anticipate it will be no different in Tauranga."

Hamilton Court is also trialling the use of AVL for less serious sentencing matters.

Tauranga Crown solicitor Greg Hollister-Jones and criminal defence lawyer Paul Mabey QC welcomed the technology. Mr Hollister-Jones said he hoped it could also be used for High Court pre-trial matters reducing the need to travel out of town.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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