Manukau District Court: Law and disorder

By Andrew Koubaridis, Catherine Masters

Chief District Court Judge  Russell Johnson insists Manukau District Court is doing a magnificent job in meeting the demands placed on it. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Chief District Court Judge Russell Johnson insists Manukau District Court is doing a magnificent job in meeting the demands placed on it. Photo / Sarah Ivey

People drag on cigarettes and mill around outside the glass-walled fish bowl that is Manukau District Court.

Inside the building others search a long list for their names or queue to talk to the Salvation Army major who might help them with a drug and alcohol assessment, find accommodation for them to be bailed to, or simply babysit one or more of the children who are running around.

People bring their kids to court sometimes in the vain hope the judge will go easy, and sometimes to wave goodbye as dad is led away to the cells.

It's noisy and chaotic this Monday morning and Courtroom One is yet to open. Already the court seems to groan under the weight of the day to come.

Court One will sit until 7pm. Rolling stoppages by court staff and not enough judges add to the usual delays and chaos here at the busiest court in the nation.

You've struck a quiet week, people kept telling us. We thought, you've got to be kidding.

Weekend Review had come to see how the Manukau court stood up in the face of two serious charges.

One was from Judge Roy Wade, who sits at Manukau and whose week was about to take a turn for the worse. The judge had vented in a sentencing last month about the scale of sickening violence cases he was seeing and how such crime was going unreported.

The second charge was from the Bazley report into legal aid which slurred nearly all the lawyers who work at Manukau.

Dame Margaret Bazley quoted an anonymous source as saying up to 80 per cent of Manukau lawyers could be gaming the system.

To the lawyers' annoyance, she didn't provide a shred of evidence.

On count one, we saw plenty of illustrations of sickening violence. Perhaps not the "sheer sadism" Judge Wade had spoken about, but a churning undercurrent of violence pervades Manukau, from the cases themselves, to the gang fights, to the confiscated weapons removed from the public on their way in by security guards.

On count two, we didn't see evidence of lawyers gaming the system but that doesn't mean some are not taking advantage. We did, however, speak to a number of lawyers who seemed to genuinely care about South Auckland and their clientele, but who were deflated.

Manukau is one of the toughest courts to work in and the Bazley report had knocked the stuffing out of the lawyers, leaving them wondering who had said what and for what motive.

Monday

Below Courtroom One are the police cells where lawyers speak to clients in little graffiti-covered, glass-partitioned rooms. Five lawyers wait for one of the busy rooms to become free; the delays begin early in a courthouse only nine years old but already too small and suffering leaky building syndrome. At least it doesn't rain this week.

Upstairs, lawyers bustle about, seemingly always on the go, peeling off into the see-through interview rooms outside Court One with clients who face a range of charges - intimidation and threatening behaviour are among today's themes.

Bazley wrote in her report that "car boot" lawyers were a problem, particularly at Manukau, the accusation being these lawyers sought to minimise overheads through not having an office.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a car boot lawyer here, barrister Denise Wallwork half-jokes, because one of the problems at Manukau is a major lack of parking.

Wallwork, who grew up in South Auckland, has had an office nearby off and on for many years. But she says clients who frequently don't turn up to court are even less likely to turn up to a lawyer's office. She has met clients at McDonald's and sometimes has gone to their homes and dragged them out of bed to get them to court.

"We're lucky if they can remember to come to their court date. So, when you're at court, you say 'right, let's grab an interview room and let's get some instructions because I don't know if I'm going to see you in the next three months'."

Out here are the impoverished and the displaced, she says. There are many people with intellectual and mental health issues and people often have trouble reading and writing.

It's hard-core, she says, "it's like a battlefield."

She has been threatened and spat at because, in her clients' chaotic lives, a lawyer is often the last person in a line they blame for their lot.

"It's not your typical white middle-class place where you come and you expect everyone to come in to the office and say hello."

Tuesday

Among the many overnight petty theft, drink-driving and disorderly behaviour charges in the list court, a Fijian-born man is accused of assaulting a woman and 4-year-old child, an Otara man faces a threatening to kill charge, three young Samoan men are accused of robbing an Indian man while armed with a mallet handle and another man is accused of assaulting someone with a guitar.

There's a small boy in the public seating, gazing out at the rides at Rainbow's End next door. Judges have banned children from inside the courtroom but they are sometimes overlooked in the chaos.

Tuesday is Youth Court day and, along the corridor at Court Three, families and young people crowd the doorway.

A youth advocate says aggravated robbery is the new shoplifting in Manukau, though there are no such cases today. When youths run out of alcohol and drugs, they look for cash to buy more and hold up service stations or a dairy using a knife or baseball bat or, less frequently, a firearm.

Yes, it's scary, he says. "It's seen by young people as quite normal."

In the afternoon, we sneak a peek in the security office at bags of confiscated weapons. Along with the occasional P pipe are spanners, screwdrivers, knives and slug guns.

People are so used to carrying such items they forget they have them in their pockets, says a guard. Often they are for protection.

He pulls out a gun-shaped wooden flick knife a man had given to his daughter to keep her safe.

Back outside Courtroom One, a young Maori woman sits with a 6-month-old baby asleep in her arms. She was here all day yesterday, waiting for the partner who bashed her to appear, but he has still not been called.

She's giving him another chance, though he has bashed her once before. They have had help through the court, she says, and he's taking an anger management course.

She thinks they might move to Australia where life is safer because this court is simply a reflection of life on the streets. Youths and gangs hang around on the streets and the violence is getting worse, she says. "We just stay at home, we don't go out a lot."

She gazes at the numerous children in the waiting area with their mothers. They shouldn't be here and she doesn't want this for her child. She says these children grow up to see court as way of life.

Wednesday

The court list has more of the usual assaults - assault of a person, assault of a police officer, male v female assault, threatening a female, possession of a sword.

Court One doesn't begin until after 10am. Judge Semi Epati presides and starts the day with a sense of humour despite the no-show of lawyers for three men charged with assault. "Shall I issue a warrant for their arrest?," he asks the defendants in the dock before standing them down to wait.

While we're in Court One, a fight breaks out outside Court Two. The Red Army and the Cobham Crescent Boys, a couple of the smaller territorial gangs that roam the streets, swapped rude gestures and obscenities and it was all on.

Gangs are ever-present at Manukau court. The Black Power is around today, the Mongrel Mob was in yesterday. There are no patches but the security guards are alert for the gang colours and carry out random x-rays of people and bags in case they are concealing weapons.

Outside, in the square with its lone blooming pohutukawa promising Christmas is around the corner, a man from Maori Sovereignty has arrived with a rough sign and sovereignty flag to protest that the court system is just a money-making venture for the Crown.

Soon, Court One grinds to a halt again. There has been an "incident" down in the cells. Rumours begin to fly that a prisoner has escaped.

We find out later from a lawyer there was no escape but a mix-up involving two prisoners with the same name.

One was having his charges withdrawn but police released the wrong man. He went to McDonald's and then went home, we're told.

Thursday

The stack of list court charges seems heavier and contains more violence cases than yesterday.

One is a Maori woman accused of assaulting a child aged 14, and of wilful ill-treatment. An Indian man faces two counts of assault, a Tongan man is charged with assaulting a female and abusing another female who is the subject of a protection order, to name a few.

If the list court seems busy, upstairs is flat out. Thursday is Family Violence Court sentencing day featuring bashing after domestic bashing. Pushchairs, babies, toddlers, wives, girlfriends and young men line the walls outside Court Nine, filling every chair and sitting on the floor.

There are 65 cases to get through today, but often there are 80.

Across the way in Court Seven, Judge Wade, a big man with a stern voice, is supposed to be sentencing but has been dumped with a pile of remands and call-overs.

His court has hardly begun before it closes and everyone is ushered out.

A frustrated lawyer says this happens every day.

He thinks the court staff have walked out again.

He says half the time the lists are wrong or the times have changed but no one has told the people involved.

The Family Violence Court closes, too. Downstairs, three security guards escort a woman from the premises. She shouts obscenities at them. She was attending Family Violence Court but apparently was caught glue sniffing in the toilet.

In the afternoon, back in the Family Violence Court we notice the small girl squirming in the seat in front. She's about 4 years old, her mother looks about 20.

A member of the court staff whispers to the mother to keep the child quiet.

It has taken only three and a half days for the sight of little kids at court to seem normal.

Friday

It's crazy, crazy, crazy here today. Friday is indictable sentencing day - those are the serious crimes such as robbery and rape.

Judge Roy Wade is having a frantic morning, grappling with what the lawyers call the "blitz court." The court is supposed to check progress and review files to see if any can be resolved before trial, but the case load is such that many are just assigned trial dates.

One case he deals with is a gang-related drive-by shooting which resulted in the loss of an eye and the loss of a leg, involving two defendants.

The alleged incident happened in a Manukau suburb months ago. The trial was expected to take place early next year but this now looks unlikely and one of the defendant's lawyers isn't happy. It appears the Crown has asked for more time but the lawyer claims the police took too long to find the other accused.

"The delay isn't his fault, he wants to get it sorted," the lawyer argues. "Why should he be disadvantaged because the police aren't ready ... justice delayed is justice denied."

Judge Wade tries to juggle the demands of the lawyer with those for the co-accused and the Crown.

Separate trials are scheduled to be held for each accused but the judge says the case is crying out for a joint trial.

A trial date is tentatively set for July but all parties agree to return to court on January 28 to check progress.

Judge Wade's day goes downhill later in the day. The Herald has been leaked copies of private emails sent by him to a lawyer at the court in which he criticises both court staff and other lawyers and slams what he calls "Mickey Mouse Manukau mayhem."

Our week at court ends with Judge Wade refusing to comment or verify the emails. This week he went on sudden leave. His position was filled by the Chief District Court Judge, Russell Johnson. On Thursday, Judge Johnson released a statement sticking up for this creaking court. Manukau was "performing with distinction", he wrote.

"It is a court with a very high workload that has done a magnificent job in meeting and sometimes surpassing the demands made of it."

The Manukau workland will not be shared by Judge Wade. From early next year he will work at the Auckland District Court, Judge Johnson announced yesterday. He did not explain the reasons behind it. Judge Wade, however, will no longer have to put up with the 'Manukau mayhem'.

- NZ Herald

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