Alarm sounds over country's lack of judges

By Andrew Koubaridis

Judith Colllins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Colllins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

New Zealand may only be months away from not having enough judges to hear cases.

The Weekend Herald understands there are concerns within the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice about the ability for the court system to cope with the workload facing judges.

The problem isn't just restricted to Auckland, where court delays are well documented, but is a concern throughout the country.

It is an issue judges and court staff have been aware of for some time but it's understood the ministry has now established a time frame where there will not be enough judges to hear cases.

It's believed Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue has been given dates when the limit is projected to be reached.

The Weekend Herald understands that is less than a year away and does not take into account the workload which will be placed under more strain when leave and sickness are factored in.

It could also be complicated if acting warrants issued to retired judges are not extended beyond next year, something legal sources believe will happen.

Late yesterday, a district courts spokeswoman said the Chief District Court judge was unavailable to comment, while a spokesman for the ministry said it was always speaking to judges. However, there was not enough time to respond specifically about the concerns.

The Herald last week revealed Justice Minister Judith Collins wasputting judges on notice that slow delivery of reserve judgments will not be acceptable.

Mrs Collins said then that she was sick of hearing that the best answer to addressing delays was to appoint more judges.

"If I have heard that once I have heard it 100 times."

She said with crime rates dropping and fewer people to going to court, "it cannot be right, it does not compute".

Labour justice spokesman Andrew Little said one of the problems was that judges who were retired who were still on acting judge warrants faced losing those warrants when they expired early next year.

"None of them have been told if they will be getting extensions or renewals and I think that's causing the district court bench real anxiety."

Mr Little said the recently-introduced Criminal Procedure Act was designed to reduce the workload, "but in the short-term it is increasing the workload".

Judges had to get used to the law and lawyers also had to get to grips with it.

"An overhaul of criminal procedure like that takes time for everybody to get used to it."

Judges had spoken to him unofficially about the "growing pressure" and an ability of the district court, in particular, to cope.

"I think there is a perfect storm mounting now ... And I would expect in six to 12 months' time without any commitments or changes it could face real pressure."

- NZ Herald

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