Editorial: High time for wheels of justice to move faster

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Minister of Justice Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Minister of Justice Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The time it can take for judges to issue a reserved decision is one of the enduring mysteries of the justice system. It can be many months, even a year or more, following a hearing at which the learned mind was presented with the salient issues. Litigants can only wonder what could be taking so long, and their lawyers can only advise patience. So it is refreshing to find a Minister of Justice mystified too.

Judith Collins, a lawyer herself, does not suffer from undue deference to the judiciary. Announcing a number of steps to improve the running of the courts, she has given notice that reserved judgments will need to be delivered faster. She says she is concerned at the time judges in some courts are taking and she is sick of hearing the solution is to appoint more judges.

With crime rates declining, she cannot see how judges can claim to be overworked. Neither can anyone outside their ranks. Criminal cases, of course, are only part of their work, but the reduction in time spent in trials and criminal procedure should be allowing more time for the rest of their work.

Labour's justice spokesman, Andrew Little, who offers conditional support for the minister's intentions, believes civil cases are mainly to blame for the time that reserved decisions are taking. Hearings are taking longer, he says, because "they tend to be more complex, lawyers argue every point, backed by endless authorities, all of which makes the judge's task harder".

Civil law is probably not the problem, for its litigants have a ready alternative in arbitration if they find courts are taking too long. Arbitration is commonly done by retired judges who appear to have no difficulty reaching quicker decisions than they made in court, possibly because arbitration carries no fear of appeal.

In any case, it's the Employment Court that has caused the minister most concern. She cites judgments there that have been issued up to two years after a hearing. That, as she says, is "totally unacceptable".

It might be wondered whether that particular court is hoping delay may make a decision easier. Personal grievances and unjustified dismissals are perhaps easier to adjudicate when reinstatement is not an issue because the applicant has found another job.

The Cabinet has approved Ms Collins' plans to introduce legislation that will require every jurisdiction to draw up its own protocol for reserved decisions. The protocols would include providing reports on the progress of decisions and the number of judgments that are overdue on a reasonable schedule for delivery.

That is probably the most Parliament can do. It would not be intruding too much on the independence of the judiciary to insist that they at least keep the public and litigants posted on the progress they are making.

There is a risk that the task of filing progress reports might further delay their decisions but, equally, it might prompt them to hasten the decision and save the interim paperwork.

Bar Association president Stephen Mills, QC, finds the idea of decision timelines "highly desirable". Naturally, he reserves his association's decision until it can see whether the bench or the legislature will have the larger say in setting the schedules.

The minister's comments suggest it will be left entirely to the courts.

Parliament should not need to state a reasonable time for judicial decisions. If it did, it would probably be too gentle. It is better the judiciary is aware that Parliament is expecting better of them, and it has the public on its side. Time is not the essence of good judgment, but it matters.

- NZ Herald

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