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Number of trials falls

Number of trials falls

People who elect a judge-alone trial through the Ashburton District Court are waiting longer to get their day in court - but the problem isn't limited to Ashburton.

According to information acquired under the Official Information Act, there were 25 judge-alone trial hearings in Ashburton in 2021, 28 the following year, and just six in 2023.

The Ministry of Justice says there is no lack of resources for judge-alone trials in Ashburton, despite the number of hearings falling significantly last year.

Manager for courts, tribunals and regional service delivery Jacquelyn Shannon said a new priority-based roster and scheduling service was introduced in May 2023 which effectively funneled judicial and justice resources to district courts with the largest backlog in cases.

"All parts of the courts' operations are considered, including the number and type of courtrooms, availability of court staff, and key stakeholders such as counsel, police prosecutors and probation officers."

Shannon said the new roster system was expected to reduce delays in obtaining hearing dates and improve access to justice by reducing backlogs.

"Judges were allocated to other courts around the country with the largest backlogs, which will have contributed to the decrease in the number of judge-alone trials in Ashburton," she said.

Lawyer Douglas Brown, whose work spans four courts including Ashburton, said judge-alone trial dates in the Ashburton District Court were less regular than they used to be.

However, the problem wasn’t limited to Ashburton, he said.

“There’s a nationwide shortage of judges and defence lawyers. It’s a problem up and down the country, not just Ashburton.”

Brown said long wait times added to the stress for defendants, with the case “hanging over their heads” for longer.

It was particularly problematic for defendants in custody, he said.

“It was also difficult for complainants waiting for their story to be heard and get justice.”

The lack of trial dates also caused a problem for defence lawyers because everything just backs up.

Brown said Ashburton needed a larger courtroom – and a second courtroom – to help with delays.

Nationally, the average number of days to dispose of a case where a judge-alone trial was elected was 346 days in 2021, 406 days in 2022, and 409 days in 2023 - with cases reflecting under the year they finalised.

Shannon said there had not been much change in the average number of days between a first appearance and judge-alone hearing for both the Ashburton District Court and nationally.

In Ashburton, it took an average of 431 days in 2021, 442 in 2022, and 447 in the last year - with the data limited to cases disposed of in the Ashburton District Court.

Shannon said the Ministry did not hold information about whether judge-alone trials initially scheduled for Ashburton were transferred to other districts.

By Sharon Davis