How High Court judges do more with less

The High Court’s civil workload has continued to shrink, according to its latest annual report on what it does.

Civil cases filed in the High Court last year fell by 153 (5%) to 2827 cases when compared to 2011.

A 'year in review' report on High Court activity during 2012 reveals the  number of civil cases disposed of also fell, by 106 (3%) from 3153 to 3047.

However, there was a 14% increase in the number of civil cases disposed by trial over the year.

Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann points out the shortening of time to trial had increased the percentage of civil cases going to full hearing. That was one reason why the court remains busy, notwithstanding the drop in filings, she says in the report.

Auckland High Court accounts for 54% of all civil cases filed last year.

The drop in the number of civil cases filed in the High Court since mid 2010 has been a sore point, exacerbated in recent years by the popular growth in use of private mediation ahead of the courtroom for lasting dispute resolution.

In a rare public clash last year, Justice Winkelmann took serious issue with an argument Auckland barrister Anthony Grant raised regularly in his NZ Lawyer magazine column – that the High Court system of civil justice fails dispute resolution.

In an exclusive interview with NBR in November 2010 about the role of private dispute resolution, former leading commercial judge turned private mediator Robert Fisher QC said the growth of private dispute resolution disappointed judges and was a disincentive to judicial appointment.

Mr Fisher said judges liked dealing with high calibre cases and were disappointed a lot of significant legal argument was dealt with outside their courts.

Busy workload
Justice Winkelmann reported a busy workload at the High Court in 2012.

New business from jury trials rose in 2012 after reaching a four-year low in October 2011.

But new business fell away by 4% in the civil jurisdiction, from 3005 cases in 2011 to 2889 in 2012.

In terms of criminal proceedings - disposals of cases increased, in part due to the introduction of sentencing indications.

The number of insolvency cases filed in the High Court has also been falling from a peak in 2009 which was linked to the global financial crisis.

At the end of 2012 there were 715 active insolvency proceedings - 83 (10%) fewer than at the end of 2011.

But criminal cases heard dropped due to a large number of very long cases heard during the year. Six criminal trials each took at least 30 days to hear.

Timeliness improving
The High Court has met its target of delivering 90% of judgments within three months, the report said.

Of the civil cases, almost 78% of judgments were delivered within one month and in criminal cases 97% were delivered within one month.

Once ready for hearing, the court is able to provide a fixture date for a case within 9 months more than 90% of the time.

The total number of judgments delivered during the year was 1,996 in civil cases and 1,731 in criminal cases.

The number of judges remained steady at 35 judges and 9 associate judges as at December 31 2012.

Public confidence in the High Court is essential for a civil society, Justice Winkelmann said in the report.

Plans to improve the quality of information about the court and access to judgments include being more proactive about making judgments available via the Courts of New Zealand website, and giving notification of expected judgment delivery timeframes.

gbond@nbr.co.nz

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