Courts’ Covid slowdown

The wheels of justice turn slowly, so they say.

The Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging business productivity and claiming thousands of lives as it sweeps the globe, and the justice system is certainly not immune.

The progress in courts around the country has been positively glacial since Level 4 restrictions were imposed by the Government.

A notoriously archaic system, one of the few in the country that is still paper-based, the courts have been forced to use technology to improvise just to keep those wheels turning.

In practice it has meant judges sitting with a registrar in empty courtrooms while defendants, their lawyers, prosecutors, Probation and other staff appear by video link.

And only a fraction of the work is getting done.

Schedulers have had to prioritise only the most pressing cases.

This has meant proceedings have been dominated by first appearances on new charges, bail breaches and those behind bars who need to be sentenced with impending release in mind.

A creaking system is now under even greater strain.

Staff will have to find space for cases affected by the lockdown in the future, pushing things further and further out.

Those on bail waiting to learn their fate may now have an extra three months or more to wait as the caseload piles up, not to mention victims whose trauma will be prolonged by the inevitable delays.

The backlog of judge-alone trials (where usually relatively lower-level allegations are heard in the absence of a jury) in Auckland is so dire that judges from around the country were being requisitioned to sit there during May to clear it.

It remains to be seen whether that will take place, considering the rest of the country's courts will be under increasing pressure whenever restrictions are lifted.

Meanwhile, the number of new cases piles up.

This week in Dunedin a historic building was ransacked, a drunk-driver fled police and crashed into a lamppost, and a man was caught trying to break into a liquor store.

It will not get any better.

The criminal community in the region can generally be differentiated from the average citizen because of an impulsivity and lack of consequential thinking.

They do not obey the laws of the land because they do not have the foresight to consider a future court appearance, potential prison term or impact on victims.

It is naive to think they will somehow now feel any societal responsibility to adhere to the restrictions that currently govern our movements.

An added issue is that, quite simply, lockdown is boring.

Do not underestimate the ingenuity of a bored person, feeling no pressure of conforming to community norms, with little to lose.

The flow of drugs through the South, where there is an increasingly ready supply of methamphetamine, will not be thwarted by Covid-19.

People need money to pay for drugs — when so many are temporarily or permanently unemployed, how are they going to get that cash?

The complexity of the conundrum does not end there.

When those who stray end up before the court, it would usually be a straightforward question of bail for a judge.

In the country's current state, it is a different exercise.

Should people be returned to their bubble, from which they may have committed the offence? Is a judge willing to compromise another bubble to move them further afield?

A risk-averse judiciary will likely keep more defendants behind bars — yet another system that is overloaded.

Prisons will no doubt be intensely cautious about dealing with new arrivals, while weighing against that obvious human rights issues.

An outbreak of Covid-19 in a jail would cause massive headaches for Corrections.

Jury trials were the first to go when the ministry looked at how it could minimise physical contact between court users.

And it is highly unlikely things will be back to normal as soon as the Level 4 lockdown ends.

As a result, rape victims, the families of those who have been murdered and others affected by serious crime — as well as those on bail or locked up, desperate for a chance to prove their innocence — are forced to just wait.

Easier said than done.



The ingenuity of victims will comprise effective self defence, should the State fail.

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