Although COVID-19 has shut the doors on almost all businesses around New Zealand, the courts are still operating. Access to justice is a basic human right, and the provision of legal services has been deemed an essential service for your wellbeing and safety.
Protection and Parenting Order Applications Drop
Social distancing requirements have meant the number of court staff, and therefore the number of court operations, has reduced dramatically. Not only that, but the number of matters being filed with the courts has also decreased in some areas.
For example, there’s been a 47% drop in Protection Order applications, and a 60% drop in Parenting Order applications. This is concerning as it could be indicative of a rise in applications once the lockdown period ends.
As such, the courts are looking to conduct as many remote attendances as possible, in order to reduce the number of attendees present in court. Technology, as with many other businesses and organisations trying to operate in the current climate, has become a critical part of the response. However, the court is acutely aware of the limitations in conducting hearings online, and these are issues the courts are still trying to iron out.
Jury Trial Status
All jury trials have been suspended until 2021. Although this decision can be re-considered later, currently it is just not possible for juries to operate. The social distancing restrictions are just too stringent, and the jury system is too intimate, making the risk of spreading COVID-19 too high. Justice Susan Thomas has made it clear that no jury trials will operate at Level 3, and it is unlikely that they will operate at Level 2 either.
Given the delays, and subsequent backlog, of litigious matters, the Courts will deal with cases in accordance with the usual triage factors. All cases that have been adjourned will be reviewed by a Judge to allocate a new date, and, in doing so, the Judge will consider the facts of each case. In essence, the courts will be dealing with cases on a priority basis.
Family Court Status
In the Family Court these factors include: safety and welfare (particularly of children and older people whose care needs to be determined); proceedings that are time pressured in the relationship property sphere; and applications for spousal maintenance.
Parenting orders and variations to parenting orders will also still be dealt with. There is expected to be an increase in these orders during this time as parents navigate a new way of parenting, especially where households are based in different regions of the country.
Status of Court Matters in General
More generally, the courts are doing their best to hear as many cases as they can. In the District Court matters affecting defendants who are in custody will be heard on their scheduled hearing dates. Police bail applications will be modified to avoid the needs for defendants to appear within the statutory time frame.
In the High Court all custodial remands, criminal appearances and pre-trial applications (including sentencing indications) will continue to be heard.
Regarding civil matters, the District and High Court will continue to hear all civil priority proceedings, keeping in mind there is a very limited capability to take oral evidence in either court.
While all courts will continue to accept filing of documents in all proceedings, the allocated date for hearings is what is in question – specifically how long until the matter will be listed. This is a question that cannot be answered with certainty. While we can all understand the need for physical distancing, it is clear that this makes proceeding with certainty difficult.
The courts have made it clear that staff safety will not be compromised, and this decision will impact the court’s ability to carry on at full capacity. Nevertheless, the court are doing their best to reduce these impacts. Double sessions and ‘Judge alone’ trials may need to be considered in the future, as well as Courts opening on Saturdays. These are extreme measures, but the courts are seriously considering them so that the administration of justice can continue.