Moving judicial resources from the criminal to the family court is only a Band-Aid solution, the New Zealand Law Society says.
The law society and the New Zealand Bar Association are calling on the Government to increase the number of judges available to carry out district court business to address critical resourcing levels.
The organisations are speaking out after a column written by the Chief District Court Judge, Jan-Marie Doogue, in which she said there would be a redeployment in judicial resource from the criminal jurisdiction to the Family Court, to meet the backlog.
NZLS Criminal Law Committee convenor Steve Bonnar QC said the access to justice in the district court was under threat and moving resources from the family court to the criminal courts would only move the problem.
"While this may temporarily relieve pressure in the Family Court, it will just increase delays and pressure in the criminal courts. It is not a long-term fix."
The solution was to appoint more district court judges, he said.
New Zealand Bar Association president Clive Elliott said resourcing had reached a critical point and immediate intervention by the Government was needed.
A serious backlog had arisen in the Family Court where there were about 8000 Care of Children Act cases waiting to be heard, he said.
"The situation in the Family Court is one example. It is clearly serious when the welfare of so many children is likely to be affected by these delays. The reality is that the only way the courts can manage is by pushing further delays on to litigants."
Previous changes in legislation, which restricted who could serve as an acting judge, had created an untenable situation for the court, he said.
Prior to the passing of the District Court Act 2016, although there was cap on the number of permanent judges who could be appointed, lawyers as well as retired judges could be appointed as acting judges.
The 2016 Act now restricts appointment of acting judges to those who are former judges of the District Court and are under 75 years old so there is a much smaller pool of people who can be appointed as acting judges.
In real terms, there has been a fall in the total number of judges. In 2017 the total number of all judges was 179. By the end of May 2018, this will have fallen to 167 judges. The new cap in the legislation is 160.
On top of that, the cases judges were dealing with had increased in complexity and
seriousness in criminal cases and there had been a considerable rise in the number of without-notice applications and defended applications in the Family Court, Elliott said.
He said the strain on the judiciary had been considerable and the country could not afford to lose experienced judges.
He said those involved in both the family and criminal jurisdiction needed prompt justice so people could resume their lives and move forward.