Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Judge attacks delays and throws out drink case

Accused made to wait 14 months for day in court.

Mervyn James Brown could apply for compensation.  Photo / Doug Sherring
Mervyn James Brown could apply for compensation. Photo / Doug Sherring

A repeat drink-driver was allowed to walk free after a court botch-up meant no judge was assigned to his case.

And the judge who eventually heard the case - 14 months after the charges were laid - has blasted the Ministry of Justice over decreasing resources and opened the door for the accused man to apply for compensation.

The judge's ire came after Mervyn James Brown, 72, allegedly blew nearly twice the legal limit when he was breathtested in Porchester Rd, Papakura, in July last year.

The builder, facing his fifth drink-driving charge, pleaded not guilty and claimed he had been unlawfully detained. The case was scheduled for January 25 this year.

However, Papakura District Court staff failed to arrange a judge and the case was put off.

In September, Judge John Clapham said the continuing delay was unacceptable and ordered a stay in proceedings.

"This is, in my view, a major failing by the administration," he said in a judgment.

"I can see no way of resolving such an abuse by the administration of a defendant's rights and accordingly I stay the prosecution."

He said court staff were not to blame, but rather it was those responsible for allocating resources. The case adds further weight to concerns from lawyers that diminishing resources have courts in a crisis.

Two weeks ago the Herald on Sunday revealed the justice system was approaching "crisis point" as defendants and victims were forced to wait more than three years for some cases to reach the courtroom. Bert Jury and two other men were accused of importing kilograms of cocaine and distributing it from the basement of a Ponsonby gym - but their four-week trial was aborted halfway through when two of the defence lawyers became unavailable. The average waiting time for a district court jury trial this year is 390 days.

Yesterday, the Weekend Herald reported Judge David Wilson, QC, questioning whether drug cases should be expedited by removing juries and having them heard before judges.

Police have appealed against the Brown decision, and the case has been referred to the High Court.

When the Herald on Sunday visited Brown at his rural Drury home at midday on Thursday, he was sitting in the driver's seat of his van, which was parked in the driveway, and admitted he had already had a drink that day. Brown said he was considering applying for compensation.

He said: "As far as I am concerned, I have been f***** around for 14 months."

Brown said he was advised to plead not guilty, and accepted he could have gone to jail had he been convicted. The maximum penalty for a person convicted of their third drink-driving offence is two years' jail.

In his written decision, Judge Clapham made it clear he would have found the charge proven and not allowed Brown to "take refuge in technicalities".

Judge Clapham said police had invested significant resources bringing the case to trial. He added he might allow Brown to apply for costs, "If it was necessary to bring home to the administration that they need to do considerably better by allocating judges to fixture time, and ensuring that defendants are able to argue their cases".

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue said: "As soon as the issues which caused this event became apparent, the judges worked intensively with the ministry, to develop an improved process for judicial rostering and for the scheduling of cases to judges."

District court general manager Tony Fisher said: "This isolated but unacceptable event occurred at a time of great change in the ministry's infrastructure in the Auckland region.

"As a result there was a lack of clarity around where the responsibility for assigning judges and scheduling of cases lay at that time."

Evening hearings

A South Auckland court is introducing evening court sessions to reduce delays caused by renovations.

Defendants could now be called any time between 8.30am and 7pm at the Manukau District Court to face sentencing.

In a letter to lawyers, the court said that it would avoid a possible "blowout" in sentencing numbers.

"It also means clients will not have to wait during the whole day, and will enable clients who have employment to book a slot outside their employment hours."

They added that the 'double sessions' could be rolled out to other courts around the country.

"If the double sessions model is deemed to be a success, for all parties, aspects of it may be utilised to benefit other areas."

The double sessions, beginning in March, will at first be for sentencing.

- Herald on Sunday

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