Some alleged offenders held in custody have been denied a hearing before a judge as proceedings were mistakenly adjourned during the coronavirus lockdown.
The error was revealed in a letter today by Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu to the presidents of the New Zealand Law Society, Criminal Bar Association, Auckland District Law Society and NZ Bar Association.
"I am aware that since alert level 4 came into force, some defendants who are in custody and scheduled to appear in the District Court have not appeared and their proceedings have been administratively adjourned by the registry," he said in the letter, which was also sent to the country's Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann.
Judge Taumaunu had said on March 25 that all defendants who are in custody will appear before a judge.
"Accordingly, those defendants should have appeared before a judge," he said. "The Ministry of Justice has agreed to identify the defendants who were dealt with in this manner and will reschedule their appearances to the next available date before a judge."
The coronavirus crisis has caused significant disruption to New Zealand's courts and justice system, with the Ministry of Justice indicating at least 59,500 events a month in the District and Youth Courts will be postponed during the lockdown.
The enormous number of adjournments has the potential to create a lengthy backlog of hearings in the system.
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Judge Taumaunu said in the letter those hearings which are held will be facilitated by remote participation whenever possible.
He also said no witnesses for judge-alone trials or pre-trial applications are required to appear in court to give evidence until further notice.
Instead, an administrative hearing will be conducted.
Judge Taumaunu added that the Ministry of Justice has established a virtual meeting room facility for all counsel, court participants, and accredited media to participate in priority proceedings by audio-visual link (AVL) from their homes or offices.
"A judge and registrar will be in the courtroom but counsel are encouraged to appear by AVL whenever feasible."
Applications made under the Returning Offenders (Management and Information) Act have also been added to the list of priority proceedings in the District Court during the alert level 4 period, Judge Taumaunu said.
While being largely closed to the public, New Zealand's courts will remain open to defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, officers of the court and journalists.
Judge Taumaunu said all court participants in the District Court are permitted to wear personal protective equipment while appearing in court either in person or remotely, such as gloves and facemasks.
The Ministry of Justice has said it is ordering infrared scanners to test people's temperatures when entering a courthouse. Those who appear to have a fever will be turned away.