New Zealand's highest court and several others will close the doors to its courtrooms this week as the country prepares for a nationwide lockdown to combat the global coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said in a statement this evening that proceedings in the following courts will not go ahead this week:
• Supreme Court
• Court of Appeal
• Employment Court
• Environment Court (exception of one proceeding, ENV-2020-AKL-025, Environmental Protection Agency)
• Māori Land Court
• Waitangi Tribunal
• Coroners Court
Earlier today, the New Zealand Law Society asked Chief Justice Winkelmann to clarify what an alert level 4 lockdown means for the country's courts and justice system.
"We know you are all anxious following the Prime Minister's announcement today," the Law Society said in tweet.
Prime Minister Ardern announced this afternoon that schools, childcare centres and universities will be closed from Wednesday.
All non-essential businesses or services must also shut in the next 48 hours and Kiwis should stay at home unless visiting an essential service.
Ardern said the strict measures will save tens of thousands of Kiwi lives.
The Chief Justice said in her a statement that courts have been classified as an essential service but that a move to level 4 "will be extremely disruptive to everyday court practices".
"It is essential that New Zealand courts 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," she said.
"It is my expectation that for the remainder of this week courts will operate only in the priority areas."
Those areas identified are:
• Liberty of the individual
• Personal safety and wellbeing
• Matters in which resolution is time critical.
"To the maximum extent possible, and to avoid the need for people to attend court in person, the courts will use remote participation to hear matters. Remote participation may involve AVL where that is possible, telephone or email," the Chief Justice said.
However, she said, in the District Court in-person attendances may be required in some cases.
"Where court attendance is unavoidable, the safety of the public, court staff and members of the legal profession is paramount. Measures have been taken to achieve physical distance and to improve courthouse hygiene."
She also acknowledged and appreciated the levels of concern amongst the public, court staff and the legal profession.
"These are unprecedented times for New Zealand, and we would not be human if we were not worried. I deeply appreciate the commitment that the people who work in our court buildings have shown over the last two weeks," the Chief Justice said.
"Our frontline court staff and members of the legal profession have continued to serve the interests of justice, and their constructive approach to the necessary changes we have implemented, and will continue to implement, has kept the courts operating and will continue to see justice administered."
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The Chief Justice had already ordered a halt to any new jury trials for at least two months due to Covid-19.
In a letter to New Zealand's legal profession last night, she said the country's courts will remain open.
Proceedings will be prioritised, she added, and the number of people allowed in courthouses will be limited.
The Ministry of Justice 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.
Many judicial decisions will now also be made on paper and some hearings conducted by telephone or video, the Chief Justice said.
At the Ministry of Justice, many staff are already working from home.
"As for staff at the Ministry's National Office in Wellington, only those who are currently considered critical to maintaining the justice system in light of the current circumstances will be in the office. All other staff have been asked to remain home unless their manager requires them in the office for these critical services," Secretary for Justice Andrew Kibblewhite said.