Courthouse changes will impact on many communities

Saving money through changes to New Zealand’s courthouses comes at the cost of downgrading an important institution in many communities and imposes a financial burden on many who can afford it least, the New Zealand Law Society says.

Law Society President Jonathan Temm says that effective use of new technologies in the courts will be critical to the success of the changes which have been announced.

“Initiatives to modernise the justice system are welcome. However, the technology needs to be in place and well tested before any cuts are made to existing services or court staff. We know this is not the case.”

Mr Temm says the changes will impact on many District Court users who lack the necessary computer skills, literacy skills or access to computers to deal with court matters online.

“And New Zealand still has areas with no internet access or with access at dial-up speed. We’re not convinced that the government has really considered the impact of what it is doing on many communities around the country. It needs to look beyond the ‘e-vision’ to the reality of what it means to suddenly have your access to an important institution removed or reduced.”

Court staff in rural communities particularly are often seen as neutral officials, with considerable standing in the community. Closures, re-designations and restructuring will mean many people with considerable experience are lost from smaller centres, he says.

“The courthouse itself is an very visible symbol of our justice system and its presence ensures that communities see justice being done. It shows that justice is there for everyone and is accessible to everyone.

“Many of the regions which are most affected by the changes have thinly-spread and widely dispersed populations. Getting to and from court and the court registry will become far more difficult and costly. Justice will become less accessible.” Mr Temm says.

“People in places like Dargaville, Balclutha, Upper Hutt and Te Awamutu have shown their dismay at what will happen when their courthouse services are downgraded. The Law Society believes there has been inadequate consultation and a failure to look beyond the financial savings to the more important issue of maintaining access to justice.

“The Law Society is concerned that the ministry has taken a “tick-the-box” approach to consultation with communities and also with the legal profession. However, it is determined to work to re-establish protocols to ensure there is better consultation in future. The Law Society’s Courthouse Committee will keep working with the ministry to find the best ways of minimising the impact of changes on everyone.”

Mr Temm says the changes also announced by the Ministry of Justice to the management structure within the District Courts reflects the value of consultation.

“While the Law Society still has reservations about the scale and timing of the restructuring, it is encouraging to see that the ministry has taken on board a number of the concerns raised by lawyers and court staff and has modified its proposals as a result.”