This month the toast hit the floor, jam side down at the Manukau District Court. Sources say there was a suspected Covid-19 case on Friday, March 13. A man arrested by police was taken
to Middlemore Hospital for testing after displaying flu-like symptoms. He had
been held at the Counties Manukau District Custody Unit. He tested negative, a police spokesperson has said. The saga delayed the start of the afternoon proceedings.
Two weeks on, members of the public are prohibited from attending criminal proceedings unless they have approval. Otherwise, the court is now in the clear, so much so that Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu made an appearance last Thursday.
Now, the judiciary is calling all the shots. In a bid to prepare for last Thursday's nationwide lockdown, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said proceedings in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, Employment Court, Environment Court (bar one proceeding), Maori Land Court, Waitangi Tribunal, and Coroners Court would shut their doors for the week.
"[C]ourts are an essential service. New Zealand courts must continue to uphold the rule of law and to ensure that fair trial rights, the right to natural justice and rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act are upheld."
The Chief Justice warned that the move to level four would be "extremely disruptive to everyday court practices" - and it appears that's exactly what's happened. Any new jury trials have been ordered to a halt for at least two months, and only proceedings "affecting the liberty of the individual or their personal safety and wellbeing, or that are time critical" will be heard during the lockdown.
Specifically, criminal hearings, Youth Court hearings, Family Court hearings, and some civil hearings will take priority. Warrants to arrest, bail, case review hearings, defended hearings, sentencings, various appeals, protection of young persons in custody, habeas corpus applications, judicial review matters, Mental Health Act orders, and orders under the Health Act will take precedence. Journalists are not in the clear, however, as the Broadcasting Standards Authority will continue to deal with complaints.And prison visits have
been suspended entirely.
In a criminal context, an email was circulated to Auckland lawyers on March 24, describing the criteria police have been told to adopt. The leaked email suggested that the idea was to limit or reduce any unnecessary arrests.
A police spokesperson has said police around the country are working to relieve some of the pressure from the criminal justice system.
In line with the Solicitor-General's guidelines, prosecutions will continue where there is an issue of public safety, they said.
"Some other prosecutions may be deferred until normal court operations have resumed.
"As is [sic] always been the case, police officers have a number of options available to them following an arrest, depending on the offence type. These can include alternative resolution options such as pre-charge warnings or verbal warnings."
Filing of court documents will be done via email, audio-visual links will increase, and where possible telephone or online communication will be implemented.
The Chief Justice has said "measures have been taken to achieve physical distance and to improve courthouse hygiene. The Ministry of Justice has posted designated hygiene officers to each court to ensure that the increased hygiene standards are maintained."
If this means judges will be henceforth sporting face-masks, that's really quite something.
An Epidemic Preparedness (Covid-19) Notice was issued last Tuesday pursuant to section 5 of the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006. The notice has activated the special and requisition powers of medical officers of health. It also enables certain judges and associate judges to modify rules of court as they see fit in the interests of justice.
The notice interestingly also discusses whether voting could be adjourned under the Electoral Act 1993, and whether liability could be excluded to Department of Corrections staff for failing to comply with the Corrections Act 2004.
Two Covid-19 related bills were also introduced last week, where the House adjourned after agreeing to return on April 28. Covid-19 Response (Taxation and Social Assistance Urgent Measures) Bill amends the Income Tax Act 2007, Tax Administration Act 1994, Goods and Services Tax Act 1985, Social Security Act 2018, Taxation (KiwiSaver, Student Loans, and Remedial Matter) Act 2020, and the Commissioner's Table of Depreciation Rates. In a nutshell it assists the Government's response to wider economic impacts associated with Covid-19.
Then there's Covid-19 Response (Urgent Management Measures) Bill, which assists the Government's broad policy-making around implementing Alert Level 4 arrangements. It covers education matters, the courts, local government, Civil Defence, and housing-related changes.
What's happening overseas?
Much of the world's courts have shut down, bar the UK, which has gone so far as to celebrate the investiture of Queen's Counsels just over a week ago. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights has cancelled its March and April hearings, and the European Court of Justice has suspended all hearings for the next fortnight or so. Ireland has suspended new cases, Italian courts have entirely closed, and proceedings in China have been put online. National French courts have all shut down.