David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Judges meet calls for increased accountability

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

District Court judges have met calls for increased accountability with their first annual report - and raised publicly limitations imposed by "limited resources".

The report has been released and details the role of the court while also reporting statistics on its workload and clearance rate.

It comes against a year in which there have been heightened tensions between the judiciary and the executive.

Justice minister Judith Collins has had a prominent role, calling judges holiday entitlements "generous" and asking for an investigation of the court system by the Productivity Commission.

READ THE FULL REPORT HERE

The judiciary is a separate branch of state and meant to be free of interference from the other branches of state - the executive, which is ministers and the departments they run, and Parliament.

But a complete separation is impossible with the judiciary reliant on funding from the executive, which is paid through the Ministry of Justice.

The annual report made the point, with Chief District Court Judge Jan Marie Doogue stating the statistics used to report on judicial performance could not be endorsed by judges.

"The constitutional model that exists in New Zealand means that the judiciary has no independent budgetary or resource control. One of the significant implications of that, so far as this report is concerned, is that it is not the responsibility of the judges to collect statistics on the performance of the courts.

"We are reliant upon the executive arm of government to do that and are therefore not able to endorse the accuracy of the statistical data provided."

She also raised the difficulty of managing resources, saying the job of chief judge was to ensure the orderly and prompt management of the courts.

"I constantly wrestle with ensuring the most efficient deployment of judicial resource so as to properly discharge this responsibility," she said. Various initiatives had been undertaken but she said "because of limited resources, the gains made by these initiatives have been at the expense of other business".

The Herald understands issues around judicial resourcing have been passed on through Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, whose role is to speak for the judiciary, and Secretary of Justice Andrew Bridgman, whose ministry handles the flow of cash used to run the court system.

A spokesman for Mr Finlayson said he met regularly with the minister of issues of judicial resourcing.

The Ministry of Justice also confirmed discussing resourcing of judges with its minister.

"The judiciary regularly discusses matters regarding the operation of the courts including judicial resourcing with the Ministry of Justice.

"As the Minister for Justice is responsible for the ministry and its budget some of these issues are discussed with her."

Ms Collins referred resourcing questions to Mr Finlayson, whose office said it was her role.

Executive district court Judge Colin Doherty said the report would help the community understand better the work of the district court. The report also showcased judges out of their robes outside court settings explaining their roles.

"We also want to let the community know we are part of the community."

Otago university law dean Professor Mark Henaghan said there was a strong feeling from the judiciary that it was not resourced sufficiently to do the job expected.

"Judges like to have a certain amount of autonomy in what they do. It's just a question of whether it is out of balance."

He said judges were caught by the need to remain neutral.

"The danger with these debates is the judiciary can be more politicised than they should be."

Labour justice spokesman Andrew Little said there was a concern from the courts that it was falling victim to "managerialism".

"I'm nervous of applying corporate values to something that is not a corporate function."

He said Ms Collins had a populist approach which realised there were few votes in defending the judiciary.

"I don't think she has a very coherent view of the justice system generally. She doesn't think deeply or in high level terms about anything."

The report shows the courts handling fewer cases and clearing backlogs. The $20,000 to produce the report came from the Ministry of Justice, through which funding for the judges is made available.

- NZ Herald

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