New Zealand's top judge says the mounting delays in the justice system due to the coronavirus crisis are already creating a "huge human cost".
Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said Covid-19 has caused an "unprecedented disruption" to the courts, with tens of thousands of court events per month likely to be postponed during the Government's alert level 4 lockdown.
"I don't believe the courts have ever been disrupted in this way, they weren't disrupted in this way through world wars," she said.
Her comments came during a meeting about the state of the justice system this morning between some of New Zealand's top judges, Ministry of Justice representatives, and court reporters from the country's major news media organisations.
While the courts are an essential service, the Ministry of Justice has indicated 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 justice system.
The Chief Justice has already ordered a halt to any new jury trials until at least the end of May to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
Justice Geoffrey Venning, the Chief High Court Judge, said today there are 59 weeks of jury trial hearing time which the High Court cannot deal with in that period.
"We're very concerned with the delays ... it's not just a backlog, it's actually individual cases which affect individual defendants, victims, witnesses," Justice Winkelmann said.
"There's a huge human cost to every aspect of delay in the justice system.
"The situation is dictating the suspension of jury trials at the moment and we can't plan for resumption until there is a clearer picture in relation to Covid-19."
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The Chief Justice said the country's judges were aware of the human toll and anxiety caused with each adjourned event during an already stressful lockdown for many Kiwis.
"Judges deal with cases all the time, we see the extent of the emotional engagement of the emotional cost of a court hearing and of a sentencing," she said. "So we know full well that there is a real human cost to the adjournments that have taken place, if we could avoid it, we would."
Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu echoed the same thoughts.
"It's not really a backlog, it's about people being affected by what's occurred with Covid," he said.
In a letter to the legal profession on Wednesday, Judge Taumaunu said some alleged offenders held in custody have been denied a hearing before a judge as proceedings were mistakenly adjourned during the coronavirus lockdown.
Justice Winkelmann said she hoped to research how the polio epidemic or the Spanish flu affected the justice system.
"I believe it is an unprecedented disruption," she said of Covid-19.
But plans were already in the works, the Chief Justice said, to help the system recover from the delays.
The "dislocating" changes, which have seen an increased reliance on technology to conduct remote court hearings, were only temporary, she said.
At the end of the pandemic the courts will return to a face-to-face justice, with the Chief Justice describing the increased use of audio-visual links and teleconferences as a necessary stop-gap to prevent the delays completely crippling the system.
"It's not how we wish to deliver justice, it's a much more complex solution and it is much more fraught," she said. "We really have no choice."
The heads of bench have earlier decided only proceedings "affecting the liberty of the individual or their personal safety and wellbeing, or that are time-critical" will be heard while the country is at alert level 4.
The Chief Justice said the judiciary was also actively monitoring what the courts and justice systems were doing in Canada, Australia, the US and UK during those countries' various levels of lockdowns.
Judges were also "acutely aware" about ensuring open justice is maintained by assisting the media's ability to report on the hearings which do continue to be held, the Court of Appeal's Justice Mark Cooper said.
While being largely closed to the public, New Zealand's courthouses will remain open to defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, officers of the court and journalists.
Judge Taumaunu has 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 also ordering infrared scanners to test people's temperatures when entering a courthouse. Those who appear to have a fever will be turned away.