The statutory rights of news media to attend and report on the courts is unchanged during the current pandemic. However, the courts, like other branches of Government, have had to adapt their processes in response to the public health emergency. This information is intended to assist media perform their vital role while the courts are operating under various COVID-19 alert levels. It provides guidance only and should be read in conjunction with the existing rules and guidelines.
To understand the context in which this advice has been developed journalists may wish to familiarise themselves with the protocols and practice notes which are available on the Courts of New Zealand website, and which explain the work each court is prioritising at this time.
The courts are an essential service. However, during alert level 4, restrictions on movement and requirements for physical distance meant that not all proceedings could be heard. The courts’ initial objective was therefore to ensure that certain priority proceedings continued to be heard throughout alert level 4 and any alert level that follows. The courts are now focused on adapting processes so that, to the greatest extent possible, work falling outside the categories of priority proceedings can progress through to hearing.
The extent to which the courts can expand their operations will remain subject to capacity, including the capacity to conduct virtual hearings, while courts operate under alert level restrictions.
The guidance provided below will continue to be updated to reflect what is happening in each court at different alert levels.
Accredited media continue to have a right to attend hearings in all but exceptional circumstances. During the period of COVID-19 Alert Level 4 restrictions, District Court registries will proactively email out regional daily lists for all criminal proceedings to regular and/or specialist accredited court reporters. These are for planning purposes and are designed to help accredited media avoid having to come to court in person unnecessarily in the current pandemic environment. Accredited media may also request press sheets for specific defendants or cases provided they are destroyed after one month.
While accredited media do not require permission to attend court, those who wish to cover a hearing being held remotely by VMR or teleconference should notify the court registry where the matter will be heard as soon as possible before the hearing to ensure they know how to take part and how to provide identification. They may join the remote hearing on the basis that they remain muted and do not record sound or capture video without express permission of the judge, which is to be sought in the normal way under the In Court Media Coverage Guidelines 2016 unless the judge agrees otherwise. The judge will decide if there is anything the media cannot report.
To help accredited media keep up with the outcome of hearings remotely, registries will make every effort to accommodate urgent requests for court transcripts involving high profile or priority proceedings, where the presiding judge agrees and also depending on the length and quality of the audio recording and the extent of any required redactions.
If journalists attend court in person, each court may ask journalists to sit in a different part of the courtroom from each other to support physical distancing. If there are too many journalists than can be safely accommodated in one courtroom, the court may institute a pool regime for media coverage, to be determined case by case.
More information about virtual hearings in the District Court may be found here under the heading “Participating in a Virtual Meeting Room court hearing”.
Accredited media may continue to attend Youth Court and Family Court proceedings within the reporting restrictions of these courts, but with the same need to give advance notice to the registry when a hearing is to be held remotely.
More information about covering the Family Court and Youth Court can be found on the District Court website.