My first year in the role of Chief Judge, 2019/2020, was always going to be momentous. Every annual report is an opportunity to look back and consider what has been achieved and changed, but during the past year events turned out to be of historic proportions.
When I swore an oath as Chief Judge on my home marae in Whāngāra near Gisborne in October 2019, little did I know that like so many institutions which provide essential services, the District Court of New Zealand was about to be tested in unprecedented ways.
Chief Judge Taumaunu swears an oath of office during a special court sitting convened by the Chief Justice, Dame Helen Winkelmann (right), at te Whitireia Meeting house in Whāngāra.
The COVID-19 pandemic response that began to unfold dramatically in February and March 2020 required urgent and continuing changes to the way the District Court operates, to ensure we could continue to provide access to justice while preserving the health and safety of participants, court staff and professionals, and the general public. We more than got by. We tried things we had never attempted before.
It is testament to the determination and resourcefulness of the judges of the District Court — and the Ministry of Justice officials and court staff who support us — plus the unifying leadership of the Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann, that at the very least we found ways to ensure priority proceedings continued, and did so safely.
Before the lockdown was announced, the District Court leadership had identified the types of proceedings to take priority while the court experienced severe capacity constraints to meet pandemic control requirements. New protocols for the Criminal, Family, Youth and Civil jurisdictions setting clear directions and guidance to court professionals and affected agencies were published at every Alert Level.
Priority proceedings generally were those affecting liberty of the individual (people in custody), personal safety (such as family violence) and time-critical matters. Despite public health restrictions forcing the adjournment of most matters, everyone held in custody was brought before a judge, which is an important human right to uphold. As restrictions were eased, as much other work as possible was also scheduled.
It was heartening that by July 2020 — less than three weeks after the country moved to Alert Level 1 — some 5500 extra, active non-jury cases in the criminal jurisdiction that had built up since full lockdown began on March 24 were largely cleared.
Jury trials were suspended for more than four months for safety reasons, and an unavoidable extra backlog of 500 jury trials continues to be addressed. However, the ability to redeploy judicial resources while jury trials were suspended carved big inroads into wait times for judge alone trials (JATs).
Planning for a project to address JAT wait times pre-dated the pandemic but the extra intensity of judge time we were able to apply, especially during June 2020, resulted in a 50% higher disposal rate than in the previous year. Over a six-week period some 1000 JATs were scheduled, of which 65% were disposed of in the Auckland metro area.
Making every appearance meaningful
Although the term “backlog” is commonly used to describe delay, it is important to keep upper-mind that a court is not about statistics and numbers but about providing access to justice, for people. Delay or backlog represents a human cost in terms of stress, uncertainty, inconvenience and expense.
The District Court leadership listen to speakers at their Wellington chambers pōwhiri for the Chief Judge.
It is also important not to label all active caseload as backlog. Concerns about delay should relate to matters that exceed ideal timeframes to reach resolution or completion. In this regard, the District Court has some catching up to do, a challenge that pre-existed COVID-19 and is caused largely by an increase in the volumes, seriousness and complexity of cases entering the court.
Flowing from a cross-agency Criminal Process Working Group that the Chief Justice asked me to co-chair with Justice Thomas at the height of the pandemic response period, a sub-committee was formed to identify and propose improvement to every step of the criminal process with the goal of making every court appearance meaningful.
A strong set of proposals resulted, and I am grateful to Judge Ema Aitken and Judge John Bergseng for their high-quality report which has been met with enthusiasm and momentum. In the coming year, I hope to be able to report on feedback and next steps in converting avoidable delay to meaningful and more timely appearances.
“Dealing with the immediate challenges from the pandemic response has not diminished our wider hopes and aspirations … If anything, the crisis brought things into sharper focus.”
My hope is the change that emerges from this collaborative project will help advance the shared vision we have for the District Court. Dealing with the immediate challenges from the pandemic response has not diminished our wider hopes and aspirations. If anything, the crisis brought things into sharper focus, presented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for improvement and demonstrated what change can be achieved in a short space of time when the status quo is no longer an option.
A shared vision for the District Court
To maintain the legitimacy of our court, the communities we serve must be able to perceive the District Court as a place where all people can seek justice, no matter who they are, where they are from, or their means and abilities. Regardless of whatever role a person plays in our court, all people who are affected by the business of our court are entitled to receive a fair hearing.
The court should take into account that different people come from different starting points. Yet too many people feel they are neither heard nor understood, irrespective of whether the administration of justice has been efficient or protracted.
The experience of all people who come to the District Court matters, whether they are defendants, complainants, witnesses, or victims. It is important that they leave feeling they had a fair hearing, and that they were heard and understood no matter what the outcome.
To a large extent this drives the mounting and consistent calls for transformative change to the way justice is delivered in Aotearoa New Zealand. It also encapsulates what judges increasingly envisage a modern, relevant and inclusive court to be, and is the basis of an emerging shared vision for the fair and equitable administration of justice on behalf of our communities.
As New Zealand’s population becomes progressively more multi-cultural, awareness about diversity and cultural competence is increasingly important. It matters especially to Māori who, despite being one of New Zealand’s two founding cultures, are imprisoned at a vastly disproportionate rate. Māori also feature disproportionately among the victims of crime and in care and protection matters in the Family Court. The Pasifika and Asian populations in New Zealand are growing rapidly and their voices must also be heard and understood, as should all the minority cultures who contribute to our progressive, inclusive country.
Some of these concerns are addressed by increasing the diversity of judges, who need to reflect the communities we serve. The mix of the new intake of 27 judges during 2019–2020 demonstrates how the court is making the fair reflection of society's diversity a reality. More than half the new judges are of Māori or Pasifika descent, while growing numbers of our judges speak or are learning te reo.
"The knowledge and skills acquired over the years by the District Court’s suite of specialist courts have much to teach us and have rich potential for delivering wider transformative change."
How we communicate, including court procedure, is important. The knowledge and skills acquired over the years by the District Court’s suite of specialist courts have much to teach us and have rich potential for delivering wider transformative change.
Judges are exploring ways to incorporate our growing body of knowledge from specialist courts into the everyday business of the District Court, through mainstreaming. The focus will be on how to incorporate, to the greatest extent possible, best practice from our specialist courts into all our courts. These courts have become adept at identifying underlying drivers of offending and applying effective solutions-focused interventions alongside community input to address them.
Judge Ema Aitken leads discussions during a hui of specialist court judges at the Chief Judge’s Wellington chambers.
With the mainstreaming goal in mind, soon after I took up the role in 2019, a meeting was convened of several District Court judges who work in specialist courts which they have designed, nurtured and championed with the support of the Ministry of Justice, other justice agencies and their communities. The meeting discussed how best practice from specialist courts could be identified and brought across into our mainstream courts to allow the maximum number of people in all of our District Court locations to benefit from the lessons we have learnt in our specialist courts. This concept has now been called the "Te Ao Mārama" model.
An exciting blueprint for mainstreaming is already being piloted in the Porirua District Court where under the leadership of the Principal Youth Court Judge, John Walker, approaches developed in the Youth Court jurisdiction for identifying special needs or disabilities of defendants are being adapted for the youngest adults who appear in the District Court. The pilot of Iti rearea, kahikatea teitei ka taea — Young Adult List began in March 2020. Another exciting opportunity for mainstreaming will be developed in the Hamilton District Court in 2021.
The Virtue of Persistence
To end this report, I am reminded of one of my grandfather’s favourite whakataukī:
He iti te mokoroa, kahikatea teitei ka hinga!
Even the smallest insect, the borer, can fell the tallest tree in the forest, the kahikatea.
To achieve a great feat, what is required is time, persistence, and commitment to achieve a unified purpose. I commend this approach to all of us in our collective endeavour to reimagine the District Court as a place where all people can come to seek justice, and to make this shared vision a reality.
Chief District Court Judge