Audrey Young

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

Collins puts judges on notice

Exclusive Minister's sweeping overhaul aims to speed up the wheels of justice

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

Justice Minister Judith Collins is putting judges on notice that painfully slow delivery of reserve judgments will no longer be acceptable.

She is planning an overhaul of the way courts are run, aimed at getting faster judgments from slow judges, requiring audio visual court appearances for procedural cases involving prisoners, greater access to decisions for the public and requiring all courts to have a consistent approach to judicial conduct and recusal from cases - where judges stand aside.

She says it will be the biggest reform in over 100 years of how courts are run and she wants to introduce a bill to Parliament by the end of the year.

Ms Collins is concerned about the length of time some judgments take and she is sick of hearing that the best answer to addressing delays is to appoint more judges.

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

But with crime rates dropping and fewer people going into court "it cannot be right; it does not compute".

Rather than imposing her own plan on what is a reasonable time, she wants each judicial sector to come up with a plan: the Employment Court, the Environment Court; the Maori Land Court; the District Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Cabinet has agreed to pass a law that will require the chief judges to set protocols for their courts about reserved decisions, including providing information on the progress of decisions and on the number of judgments outstanding beyond a reasonable time for delivery.

Judges would not necessarily be named and shamed, "not unless that is the protocol," she said, "but I would say there is a lot of public appetite for knowing what is actually happening to people's cases."

Some courts are addressing the issue voluntarily, including the High Court, and the court that Ms Collins points to as the worst offender, the Employment Court.

But there will now be a statutory requirement for all courts to address it.

She was particularly concerned about delays in the Employment Court where the difference between hearings and judgments being issued can be up to two years.

Ms Collins pointed the Herald to three judgments by the Employment Court Chief Judge Graeme Colgan, one of which took two years to deliver a judgment, and two others which took 20 months.

"From my point of view it is totally unacceptable as the Minister of Justice to stand by and let some cases, particularly Employment Court cases, take 18 months or two years for decisions to come out."

She said the issues of delay had been raised in the Court of Appeal which had raised it with her.

Judge Colgan could not be reached for comment but the Employment Court website states: "The judges of the Employment Court expect that in 2013, 85 per cent of judgments will be delivered within three months of the last day of hearing or receipt of the last submissions, whichever is the later date.

"From the 2014 calendar year, the Judges expect that 90 per cent of such judgments will be delivered within that three month period."

Ms Collins said some members of the bench might see her actions as interference with judicial independence.

"The concept of judicial independence is something I take very carefully. But my view is that judicial independence relates to what is in the judgment, not whether or not we have one."

Bar Association president Stephen Mills QC said timeliness of judgments was "highly desirable".

"The issue of whether that is best managed as it is now, internally by the heads of bench, or whether it is appropriate it be the subject of some kind of legislative direction is a matter the Bar Association will have a view [on] when it looks more closely at what the minister has in mind."

Another of Ms Collins' measures will require a consistent approach by the courts to judicial conduct and what judges should and shouldn't do in terms of appointments, activities outside work and when they should recuse themselves from cases.

Ms Collins acted as Attorney-General over the case of former Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson, who resigned while fighting allegations of misconduct for not recusing himself from a case involving a business associate.

The Judicature Modernisation and Other Matters Bill is expected to be introduced by the end of the year.

Court reforms

• Require heads of bench to publish protocols about delivering judgments.

• Require common rules across all courts on outside employment or positions for judges.

• Require guidance for judges who step aside from cases to be published.

• Require all written judgments to be published unless there is a good reason not to.

• Allow court documents to be filed, held and issued electronically.

• Require use of audio visual link for procedural cases involving prisoners to reduce transportation.

• Enable more specialist panels to be established in the High Court.

• Allow more civil cases to be heard in the District Court by extending the current $200,000 limit to $350,000.

• Give Chief District Court Judge powers to manage district court judges' workload.

- NZ Herald

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