Courts and the Auckland Service Design Strategy

  • Rick Barker

Thank you very much for your kind invitation today, I am pleased to be invited to your Council meeting.

As Minister for Courts, I am very conscious of the crucial role the Law Society members play in the effective operation of the court system. I want to take the opportunity to personally to thank you for the generous way in which you contribute your time in various ways to helping us improve New Zealand’s courts.

Before I start talking about specific initiatives I have been progressing for the court system, I want to take a minute first to reflect upon my vision for the courts in New Zealand. I have been the Minister for Courts since 2002. When I first became the Minister I thought that the best way to learn about my new portfolio responsibilities was to go on a fact finding mission. I got out of Wellington and went to the regions, and I met court staff and had tours of many court buildings.

I saw neglected courthouses. I saw staff, who were clearly dedicated and hardworking, but squashed into over crowded buildings that were not fit for purpose. I saw equipment that would not have looked out of place in MOTAT. I saw staff swamped by mountains of files and paper, and, most amazing of all, I saw court staff creating court documents using carbon paper.

I didn’t even know that you could still get carbon paper in 2002! What became very obvious to me was that courts had passed through the 20th Century untouched.

My vision for the courts in New Zealand, in particular for the services which government provides to support the courts, was born in those first few months. I see in the not too distant future, an electronic court room that makes full use of technology to enhance the service it provides. This court room is not based on paper or maybe even physical locations. Instead documents will be filed electronically, hearings could be held in cyberspace, and judgments issued electronically.

Courthouses, in my vision, are buildings that can be both a cornerstone for New Zealand communities as well as convey the appropriate status of the constitutional role of courts. Courts are the independent arm of democracy, therefore the support of judicial decision making is a key tenet of any democracy. My future court system has staff who are given the training and support they need to do their jobs. But importantly, no court system can function effectively without the co-operation of all parties to ensure that due process is done and that cases proceed in a manner that is appropriate.

That is where you come in, I want to ensure that our court system going forward has strong relationships between the key participants. I believe it is those relationships that will be the key to ensuring court services meet New Zealander’s needs and continue to provide access to justice.

In the five years that I have been the Minister, I have been working towards that vision.

I instigated a Baseline Review for the Ministry of Justice in 2004. This gave rise to the government investing $156 million in a Service Improvement Programme to build up some of the under investment from previous decades. The Ministry is now two years into the implementation of its three-year plan for service improvement.

After I first became Minister I remember visiting the Westport Courthouse and seeing one third of the corridor painted yellow and the remainder of the building in 1970’s décor. When I enquired as to the unusual interior it was explained the Court only had $200 for maintenance and that was all that could afford to be done. This is but one example of the need for this Government to have invested substantial funding into the Courts system.

Year three will see a number of service improvement initiatives being completed and bedded in - in particular providing better tools to manage workloads in the courts system and improved support for judicial officers, as well as the provision of policy advice.

The Service Improvement Programme has provided the Ministry with an environment of continuous improvement. Resource management models for registry staff have been developed, along with caseflow management, rostering and scheduling tools.

The rostering tool will help courts, working together with the judiciary, to make the best use of the available judge time. The scheduling tool helps the Ministry to be smarter about what cases they schedule on a particular day, especially for defended and status hearings. It gives them some insight to under or over-scheduling. These tools, have been developed over the last couple of years and are now being piloted. Another outcome of the Baseline Review was the Infrastructure Upgrade Programme and this programme has refreshed old and tired PCs, printers and cabling.

As I mentioned earlier, technology and modernisation is crucial for providing a platform for transforming the court system. I recently launched the e-filing of infringements. This is our first foray into the electronic court system. This is expected to save the court system from having to deal with over one million pieces of paper a year.

Video-conferencing services are available now in seven locations across New Zealand. While it is a small start, I know the Ministry expects to be exploring the benefits of expanding that technology for other types of hearings such as criminal cases.

Our online information has got better with access to courts information; we now have Judicial Decisions Online, the Courts of New Zealand website and Mäori Land Online.

As Minister for Courts, I have facilitated a number of initiatives to ensure the court system stays relevant to New Zealand’s changing face. The pilot of the non-judge led mediation and the Parenting Through Separation programme, ensure that justice systems are sympathetic to people during stressful times and that we are there to help them through their difficulties. The use of family mediation by trained mediators is part of the Family Matters Bill currently before the House, and I expect this will broaden the options available to families who use Family Court services.

Since I have become Minister, I have overseen a number of new functions coming under Justice’s wing, mostly in the Ministry’s Special Jurisdictions area. Recent examples include the Employment Court, Weathertight Homes Tribunal and the new full-time national Coronial Service.

Turning now, to the Tribunal Reform programme. Specifically, this programme is a collaborative one with Special Jurisdictions, the Ministry’s policy team and the Law Commission working together. I have visited a number of jurisdictions overseas in my official capacity and looked at how they organise their tribunal systems; many are implementing some form of unifying structure. What I see with our current tribunal system is that it has suffered from a lack of guidance in terms of how the institutional arrangements have developed.

This lack of guidance has lead to the ad-hoc system that we have today. Agencies set up their own tribunals in the best way that they know how, and then often give them to the Special Jurisdictions unit at the Ministry of Justice to administer. I am sure this is nothing new to those who are at the coalface of the interaction between the administration of justice and the public. I would like to ensure this situation does not continue.

Tribunals are an integral part of my vision for the court structure in New Zealand. For a large number of New Zealanders, their sole experience of the justice system is through using a tribunal. I see the Tribunal Reform programme as a fantastic opportunity to significantly improve the service that tribunals can provide for all users, including tribunal members, administrative staff and the general public.

The next milestone for this reform programme is a report back to Cabinet by June 2008 on the appropriate structure for tribunals and a set of guidelines for the establishment of future tribunals. This exciting reform will positively improve access to justice.

Family violence is a key priority for the government. Family Violence Courts, a judicially led initiative, represents an important development to address this critical set of issues. I am committed to making certain that the Ministry supports this initiative effectively through its Registry services.

As I am sure you are all aware, in recent years there have been significant increases in court workloads, particularly in the criminal jurisdiction. These pressures are particularly acute in Auckland.

With the expected demographic growth in the region, the court system needs some structural change in order to meet the rising tide of cases. Auckland and Manukau District Courts represent approximately two-thirds of jury trials across New Zealand. On any average week, the District Courts in Auckland have 17 new jury trials committed.

With changes to the Bail Act, the Sentencing Amendment Act and the Criminal Justice Reform Bill, you can see there is a strong focus on making sure we get the law in the criminal jurisdiction right. In addition, future change may arise via further changes to the Courts & Criminal Matters legislation, the Family Matters Bill which is currently before the House and the collaborative work the Ministry is undertaking with the Law Commission on the Criminal Procedure (Simplification) project.

To that end, we have been progressing a number of initiatives that are working towards making the court system more resilient to caseload pressures and ensuring that we get the best benefits from the legislation that underpins it. This morning I have officially launched the Ministry’s National Transcription Service’s centre at Albany which will provide expanded evidence recording and transcription services.

Early indications are that this service will not only provide consistency in transcription, but should enable cases to be heard in less time with people being able to talk at a normal speaking pace. This will substantially speed up cases.

As I am sure you know, well trained resources are an important part of well functioning courts. Over the last eighteen months I have been launching training programmes for court staff. One particular example of the excellent work that has been undertaken is the Registrar’s Handbooks that have been rolled out nationally for all four jurisdictions; family, civil, criminal and youth. To my knowledge this is the first time in court history that such a resource has been comprehensively available. In addition to Registrar’s training, specific Customer Service Skills Training is ensuring that our staff are armed with the right skills for any customer service situation.

I am particularly pleased that the Ministry has put in place a structure to support continuous improvements in District Courts so that recent improvements can be maintained and enhanced. A key aspect of this is the court review process. The courts within the Auckland area have all been reviewed and the Ministry is now in the process of re-looking at those courts to determine further improvements. Some of the improvements courts have been working toward so far are:

  • how to reduce turnover
  • how to get better engagement with local stakeholders
  • how to better utilise judicial time and
  • review of processes to ensure best practice against benchmarks
  • In order to obtain the baseline review funding I needed to demonstrate that the money would be used wisely. This required obtaining benchmarks for best practice and then building best practice models into our processes.

Courthouses and courtrooms are fundamental to service delivery. Since I became Minister, a large number of property projects have occurred across the country. The Ministry has 18 historic buildings as part of its property portfolio – and these buildings are worth saving. One project, as you probably know, is a permanent home for the Supreme Court. I announced last week the main contractor for this project, Mainzeal. Work has already begun on the site of the new building. The old High Court building will be refurbished in conjunction with the Historic Places Trust. It will provide our justice system with a cornerstone building and represents a melding of new and old architecture.

The Ministry capital building programme has also meant new courthouses, such as those opened last year in Queenstown and Greymouth. These courts are significantly larger, feature advanced security systems and are capable of supporting video conferencing and evidence recording systems. Extensive refurbishments have also occurred across the country, Blenheim, Taupo, and the Gisborne Maori Land Court are recent examples.

This work is not about to stop. We have plans for Levin, Invercargill, Nelson, and today at lunchtime I announced the concept plans for Whangarei. The Ministry is now looking at what we can do for courts in Hamilton, Tauranga and Christchurch.

The 2004 Baseline Review also recognised that many of our buildings had not been well maintained and a substantial programme of deferred maintenance was undertaken. There will, from now on, be regular maintenance.

I am in no doubt that you are aware of the conditions of our Auckland courts. The Ministry and I recognise the constraints that these buildings currently represent for people like yourselves. The Ministry is advancing plans for Auckland District Courts and talks have been had with councils at both Manukau and Waitakere to ensure our plans are aligned to councils’ vision for their communities. Additional jury capable and multi-defendant capable courtrooms will start to come on line in 2009. This increased capacity should help to assist with workload pressures and working conditions. Although I acknowledge this is not a total solution to the somewhat cramped conditions being experienced around Auckland, it is at least a start.

This leads me nicely to the work we are progressing long term in Auckland. One aspect of the Government’s economic transformation agenda is to make Auckland an internationally competitive city. Aspects of that mean ensuring an efficient legal infrastructure to hear and resolve disputes, and sanctions against those that commit crimes to ensure that Auckland is perceived as a safe city.

The development of the Auckland Service Delivery Strategy began in November 2006.
It arose from a number of concerns about the delivery of court services in Auckland and the potential impact of demographic and other changes that will occur in this region over the next twenty years.

Currently Auckland is experiencing greater growth in workloads than other parts of the country – approximately 30% of all DC jury trials nationwide are at either Manukau or Auckland District Courts.

This growth is forecast to continue with the Auckland population expected to have a potential 20-30% growth in criminal case volumes over the next 20 years, assuming no change in per capita offending rates.

As you know, most courthouses in greater Auckland are physically full, with little scope for further expansion without significant, costly and potentially disruptive redevelopment.
At present, our delivery of services occurs primarily in what I would describe as, the ‘traditional’ courthouse.

The courthouse handles a significant volume of general phone and counter enquiries. Alternate channels such as telephony and the internet are relatively underdeveloped, and many courthouses include a wide range of disparate activities; tribunal cases, jury trials, custody cases, traffic cases, fines activities and even the occasional wedding.

The Auckland Strategy has two essential aims:

The first is to increase overall capacity within the system by ensuring we get the best use of our resources and facilities. As you know courthouses are specialised buildings that require attendant facilities such as holding cells, interview rooms and jury rooms. The strategy aims to do this by moving out some services that do not need to be in the court house, and co-locating like activities into specialist facilities that will meet their particular need (such as jury trials);

Secondly, to ensure access to justice, and that we meet the needs New Zealanders have of a modern justice system through effective and efficient court services, and meeting the courts community’s needs through working together.

The Ministry, in consultation with myself, has developed a number of high level proposals.

These proposals were then used in formal consultations with stakeholders earlier this year. I know the project team has been to talk to the Auckland judges, Police, Corrections, Legal Services and professional groups, like yourselves. In addition the Ministry has undertaken customer research with 1000 court users.

The feedback provided in those consultation processes, will be used as the Ministry moves into detailed design, working closely with all stakeholder groups as that design work progresses.

The Strategy is focused around putting services into appropriate clusters, grouping those services together which have some similar features, especially in terms of the support facilities they require. For instance, the draft strategy proposes to put civil and family services together. Separating services does not however mean a more distributed set of services. The Ministry will be progressing a justice ‘precinct’ concept. This concept means jurisdiction registries will be separate, but close together. This will allow for shared administration services and collegiality but ensuring that each has its own identity.

The current proposals are primarily focused on the Ministry’s District Court, Collections and specialist courts and tribunal services. There is separate work underway to ensure appropriate future facilities for the Auckland High Court.

The proposals in the Auckland Service Design Strategy include:

Service Centre – proposed to handle bulk customer enquiries, high volume correspondence and applications and handle some Collections’ work. (This idea is consistent with Court administrations in New South Wales and the United Kingdom and Wales that are also developing service centre concepts.)

Civil & Family Centres – consolidation of non-criminal caseloads into dedicated facilities. This would bring the Family Court, the various Civil jurisdictions, along with the various tribunals and specialist courts, together in a single dedicated facility.

Criminal Summary & Youth - The existing District Court courthouses at Albany, Waitakere, Auckland District, and Manukau would focus primarily on criminal work, including Youth. Removing functions and some users from these courthouses will increase the space available at these locations for functions relating to criminal work.

Dedicated Jury Trial Courthouses – consolidation of indictable jurisdiction caseloads into purpose-built facilities – this is medium term strategy that will come into place after the existing courtroom plans in Auckland District Court and Manukau are built.

Electronic filing – E-filing and court records have potentially significant benefits and the project will begin to explore an electronic court record as well as quick wins to be had from technology. For example, the Police could lay informations electronically instead of at court in person.

Video – Conferencing – Video-conferencing is now available in seven locations across New Zealand. Further use of this will be explored as a way to reduce prisoner transport issues.

Community Justice Centre - A CJC is based on the principles of therapeutic jurisprudence, which utilises the sanctions of the court in conjunction with treatment programmes, to address the underlying causes that brought a person to court in the first place. I have visited a Community Justice Centre in Victoria, Australia and believe this type of approach will be very successful in the parts of the Auckland region.

What is being proposed is quite extensive and will probably involve a significant amount of change. This type of change does not occur overnight. To progress the strategy, we need to ensure the courts community is comfortable with the work as it progresses over the coming years.

There has been broad support from all stakeholders to the high level proposals, keen to be involved in the next phase of the project.

I am due to report back to Cabinet on that consultation prior to Christmas. In the meantime, work is not halting. The project is about to enter Phase 3, looking at designing optimum business processes.

In Phase 3, I look forward to contributions from stakeholders such as yourself particularly as the Ministry goes forward with a new strategy for service delivery in Auckland, particularly as the Ministry comes into the detailed design stage next year.

Previous regimes had put the administration of law on the backburner, allowing key infrastructure to become run down. To give an example: the Queenstown Courthouse was built in the late 1800’s and had not changes to accommodate the changing requirements of Courts. Government has put substantial resources into the administration of justice, but still has a way to go.

I want the NZ justice system to be quick, efficient and smart. To achieve that, we need to proactively look for innovative ways to do things. Auckland needs it. To successfully obtain solutions for Auckland, it will require substantial expenditure. Therefore it is important to ensure that all parties have been engaged in obtaining the best solution. Once we decide and begin moving down a pathway, there will be no going back. The changes in say, Greymouth and Queenstown were simple compared to the dramatic solutions that will be required in the Auckland region. All parties need to engage and be prepared to look to the future and find the right solutions to move forward with.

Finally, I want to take the opportunity to thank you for your vital contribution to the justice system. What the court community does every day has a significant impact on people’s lives. That contribution must be acknowledged and appreciated.