Lawyers slam minister's court-rort claim

By Beck Vass

Reducing the number of jury trials in New Zealand would only "marginally" speed up the court system, according to the Law Society.

Lawyers yesterday hit back at claims by Justice Minister Simon Power that defence lawyers are cashing in on the criminal justice system.

They say the minister should be directing his allegations of timewasting at the police.

Mr Power is proposing that anyone facing charges punishable by less than three years in prison should be able to be tried by a judge alone, rather than before a jury.

Jonathan Krebs, convenor of the Law Society's criminal law subcommittee, said today such a change would only speed things up marginally.

"If people elect trial by jury, that simply means that time is added on to empanel the jury and there'll be some speeches by lawyers which you wouldn't otherwise get in a case in front of a judge," he told Radio New Zealand.

"But you still have to have all the witnesses come and give their evidence and you still have to have all the cross-examination and any legal argument."

Mr Krebs said the Law Society supported any investigations into efficiencies that could improve the delivery of justice through the criminal courts, but changes could not be rushed into.

"We'd need to look very carefully at the proposed changes to see how they would impact on the fundamental right of everybody in our society to have a fair trial."

Mr Power told TVNZ's Q+A programme yesterday: "I believe what we're seeing is the system being badly incentivised, particularly around legal aid, to encourage multiple appearances on issues that should be dealt with in a short and timely way at first appearance ... This gaming of the criminal justice system has got to stop."

Only those facing sentences of less than three months are now dealt with by judges only.

The minister also wants a crackdown on defendants who don't appear for trial, saying more should be convicted in their absence.

Mr Power believes his proposals would reduce the backlogged system by 1000 trials each year.

Criminal Bar Association president Anthony Rogers told the Herald last night that he believed the minister had been misinformed.

The overbooking of courts and the slow and inadequate way in which police officers disclosed evidence - including police case notes and witness statements - were more to blame than lawyers for any delays.

Police "almost routinely ignored" requests for disclosure.

Courts were also being deliberately overbooked, in the expectation that some cases would not proceed.

Mr Rogers said police were also "overcharging" defendants, who had to make repeated appearances for charges to be agreed to, using means such as plea-bargaining.

He would be keen to meet Mr Power to discuss any concerns.

New Zealand Law Society spokesman Jonathan Krebs said he believed any changes to the system needed to be widely debated.

"I think a lot of consultation and a lot of thought needs to go into this."

Like many lawyers spoken to by the Herald yesterday, Mr Krebs said a defendant's right to a fair trial had to remain at the heart of debate.

"Everything has to take second place to that."

Mr Krebs said any lawyers believed to be "gaming" the system should be named, because it was against the profession's code of conduct and could result in disciplinary action.

"It's almost tantamount to fraud."

Leading defence lawyer Gary Gotlieb said it was always better for 12 people on a jury to make decisions on a defendant's charges than a single judge whose views may have become entrenched in the legal system or "cynical" during years as a lawyer.

* Offences punishable by less than three years in prison:

Male assaults female.

Criminal nuisance.

Misconduct in the respect of human remains.

Common assault.

- With NZPA

- NZ Herald

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