Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Judges on leave could stop trials

Memo warns half of district court bench could be on holiday in middle of next year.

The lights are on, but nobody's home. District courthouses could be empty over June, July and September next year thanks to a staffing crisis. Photo / Greg Bowker
The lights are on, but nobody's home. District courthouses could be empty over June, July and September next year thanks to a staffing crisis. Photo / Greg Bowker

The generous holiday entitlements of District Court judges are adding to a looming staffing crisis which could be so bad that judges have been advised not to hold any jury trials in June, July and September next year.

It is a suggestion that Justice Minister Judith Collins finds "staggering" because of present delays and one she wants to discuss with Attorney-General Chris Finlayson.

"This is a very serious matter of public interest," she said.

Peter Batchelor, a senior adviser to Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue, has detailed the major pressures on judge rostering next year in a memo to the Chief Judges Advisory Group.

The demands for leave in the middle of next year are so high that combined with attendance at a judicial seminar on some days, 50 per cent of the 129 District Court judges could conceivably be rostered off, the memo says.

 Photo / APN
Photo / APN

"Somewhat provocatively, I have been suggesting that consideration should be given to not running any jury trials, nationally, during the months of June, July and September," he writes.

"This would enable available judicial resource to be allocated to lists, sentencings and other matters nationally where statutory frameworks must be met."

That was the type of thinking that was required to deal with the periods in which available judge numbers were so restricted, he says.

The Herald revealed this week that long service leave for District Court judges has increased from 65 workings day every five years to 100 working days every five years, on top of seven weeks annual leave.

It was settled in 2008 under Labour Attorney-General Sir Michael Cullen, but took effect from September 1 this year and has only just come to light.

Dr Cullen said the extra entitlement was to recognise the stress of the job and to encourage judges to keep up with legal developments - in a way that academics did with sabbatical leave.

The bulge in leave entitlement next year has added to pressures caused by Mr Finlayson restricting the appointment of acting judges for part-time judges and annual leave by provincial judges.

Ms Collins is due to introduce a bill to Parliament this week modernising court systems, and making it more transparent by imposing statutory obligations on heads of bench to set targets for clearance of cases.

Commenting on the suggestion that jury trials could be halted to allow judges to take leave, she said last night: "I would be absolutely staggered if any such suggestion was to be taken further around stopping jury trial because long service leave couldn't be re-arranged to make sure that victims and the accused didn't have to wait even longer than they do now for their day in court."

She wanted to speak about it to the Attorney-General who is responsible for the appointment of members of the judiciary.

Mr Finlayson has approved the equivalent of five full-time Acting Warranted Judges to cover long service for the District Court leave after February next year.

But even then, the memo says, they would be able to cover only 260 weeks of 320 total weeks of leave after February. There would be a shortfall of 60 weeks unable to be covered by acting judges. The memo indicates judges are not yet taking long stretches of leave at a time.

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue did not respond to requests for comment.

Pressure points

June: 18 judges taking long service leave. 33 judges attending a two-day legal seminar in Auckland.

July: 18 judges taking long service leave.

September: 19 judges taking long service leave.

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