One of our fundamental rights will return in August as jury trials are set to resume around the country, the Chief Justice has announced.
It will see the end to an order by New Zealand's top judge, Dame Helen Winkelmann, on March 18 to suspend all jury trials due to the Government's health restrictions introduced to combat the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The step resulted in what the Chief Justice described as an "unprecedented disruption" to the courts, with tens of thousands of court events per month postponed.
"I don't believe the courts have ever been disrupted in this way, they weren't disrupted in this way through world wars," she told journalists during the April lockdown.
Last night, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Government announced New Zealand had zero active coronavirus cases and was moving to alert level 1, Justice Winkelmann said jurors will once again be called to fill the country's courtrooms.
The first week of August will see the resumption of jury trials, with some high-profile cases due to follow, including the trial of Phillip John Welsh - who is accused of murdering a 16-month-old boy - and the trial of several Comanchero gang associates.
One jury trial has been scheduled to commence in the Dunedin District Court in late July.
In a letter to the legal profession last night, Justice Winkelmann said that from today onwards physical distancing will not be enforced in courts.
However current hygiene measures will be maintained, as will contact tracing, she added.
In a statement, Justice Winkelmann said the decision to suspend jury trials reflected the special onus on the courts to protect the health of jurors required to perform an important civic duty.
"That onus continues, but the absence of any evidence of community transmission of the virus, and consequent relaxation of physical distancing measures, means it is safe to resume jury trials," she said.
Close attention will continue to be paid to hygiene in all courthouses and as before, people summoned for jury service who are unwell, or whose personal circumstances prevent them from serving, can apply to be excused.
All defendants who are in police or corrections custody will now appear in person for all court appearances during the alert level 1, unless specifically directed to appear by video link.
Judge-alone trials have already resumed in the District Court and in the High Court some civil cases involving witnesses have been able to be heard.
The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court have both continued to sit throughout the Covid-19 period, sometimes with parties attending remotely.
The lockdown also allowed the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice to develop some innovations and improvements in the justice system, the Chief Justice said.
"Throughout these two months we have been working closely with the profession to achieve a common objective: ensuring that whenever a person comes before the court, the engagement is meaningful and productive.
"That objective will continue to drive change and innovations in our systems and processes as we move to address the very significant human costs of Covid-19 pandemic on our courts and the wider justice sector."
Such innovations, she said, will include greater use of technology but this would not overturn the fundamental premise that justice is administered face to face.