"Justice delayed is justice denied." It is a well known legal principle, but one that is routinely flouted here in New Zealand. In November 2011, a helicopter crash claimed the lives of two men who were tackling a bush fire. The coroner's report was issued not weeks, not months later, but this month, well over 4 years after the event.
What an appalling disgrace. Imagine how their families struggled, unable to seek closure until they had heard all the relevant evidence as to what happened and why. Now it is reported that coroner's officers are expected to handle over 300 files at a time.
It is the same story in the criminal forum. Until the 1980s, trials took place within a very few months. Yet now, delays of 15-24 months between arrest and trial are the norm.
Imagine what that delay does to the reliability of the eye-witnesses' accounts and try to comprehend how those delays affect everyone involved, not just the victim and their nearest and dearest, not only the defendant and his or her family, and not simply the witnesses struggling to cope with the spotlight turned on events they long ago wished could be forgotten.
It is worse for child victims of sexual abuse. A few years ago, I approved the evidence of a young child witness being video recorded months before the trial for myriad compelling reasons including to reduce the stress for that child, but was overturned by the Court of Appeal on the grounds it might be unfair to the defendant. What about fairness to the child? Should they be expected to talk accurately (or even at all) of events two years before when they are now only 8 and the events in question were therefore a quarter of their lifetime ago?
Do not let it be forgotten that the presumption of innocence and the delay between arrest and trial is one of the major factors in any judge determining whether to grant or refuse bail.
If someone has spent two years or even more in custody before being found not guilty, that is scant reward for the fact that their relationship with a partner has, in the interim, almost inevitably been destroyed, their home has long since been repossessed, their job has disappeared and that their children will possibly no longer recognise them. Yet there is no compensation.
The Government apparently sanctions the dire shortage of coroners and judges upon the dubious assumption that crime is falling. I very much doubt that to be the case; it's simply another example of fudging the statistics. Even if it were true, it can scarcely be a reason to assume non-natural deaths are also declining.
The justice system in this country is seriously flawed. It needs a major rethink that does not involve simply slashing costs to meet budget forecasts and assuming that a cap on funding will not result in the cutting of corners, plea bargains and even worse.
I would ask that we commit the justice system to the completion of any criminal trial within a year of the commencement of proceedings and to a similar timetable for coronial inquests. Or is that too much to ask of a country that claims to be fair and just?