Court delays exacerbated by the pandemic are acutely impacting everyone involved. It’s a global issue and a new investigation in the US has found a connection between delays and rising crime rates, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in The Bulletin.
At an acute pinch point
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim that means if legal redress is available but not delivered in a timely fashion, it is the same as no justice at all. Victim Support spokesperson Dr Petrina Hargrave has issued a warning that the current backlog in New Zealand courts is putting victims at risk. Hargrave says that victims have considered backing out of cases because of the toll delays will take. Speaking on RNZ’s The Panel yesterday, Chris Macklin, convenor of the criminal law committee for the New Zealand Law Society, said the society is concerned about everyone involved in the justice system at the moment. “We’re really at an acute pinch point,” he said. “There will be instances where judges decide a fair trial can no longer occur because of the delays.”
Retiring judge says backlog “concerns him greatly”
By convention, judges are prevented from speaking on political matters but will occasionally make a reserved nod to an issue when they step down from the bench. In Northland, judge-alone and jury trials are now being scheduled out to 2024, and recently retired executive judge for the area, John McDonald, said it “concerns him greatly” and that “it is not fair on defendants or complainants”. He judiciously expressed confidence in the officials in the chief district court’s office in Wellington to “get on top of it”.
Pandemic exacerbates pre-existing problems
Ministry of Justice figures show that between July 2020 and June 2021, 42% of sentencing hearings didn’t go ahead as scheduled and 84% of judge-alone trials weren’t heard on the day set down. Covid-related delays in the environment court are putting the brakes on the Port of Tauranga getting permission to extend its wharves. But the pandemic has simply exacerbated pre-existing backlogs within the courts. Funding was allocated in 2019 for new district court judges in recognition of the increasing workload in those courts back then. Delays in the family court were documented in a 2019 report and funding has just been allocated to create new roles to try and alleviate them.
The connection between delayed justice and an increase in violent crime
ProPublica co-published this long read with The Atlantic recently. It looks at the different approaches taken to Covid-related shutdowns by courts in two towns in the US. Violent crime has surged in the US and while criminologists offer a range of explanations, many people who work in criminal justice have zeroed in on the extended shutdown of the court system as the reason. Working off the idea that it’s not the severity of repercussions but the speed at which they’re delivered that acts as a deterrent to crime, court shutdowns undermine the promise that crimes will be promptly punished. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read about justice and crime in a long time and may very well be relevant to New Zealand. I highly recommend it.