Law Society, PSA looking into courts staffing issues

The Law Society is investigating the issue after "a number of reports" about short staffing in court.

The New Zealand Law Society and the Public Service Association are investigating reports that courts are understaffed, with at least one judge blaming the issue for slow decisions.

In the High Court in Wellington last Tuesday, Justice David Collins warned his judgment in a civil dispute between Meridian Energy and Wellington City Council may be delayed, saying the court was "rather short-staffed in terms of judges in Wellington at the moment, and as a consequence there's a fair bit that's been backed up in the process."

The Ministry of Justice says the High Court has a full complement of 39 judges, though one of the 25 based in Auckland will be sent to Wellington next year to increase the capital city's bench to 10.

A Law Society staff member says the professional body is investigating the issue after "a number of reports" about short staffing in court, while PSA organiser Tracy Klenner says the union believes there are staffing and resourcing issues in many areas at the Justice Ministry, including courts.

"We are discussing these issues with the ministry," Ms Klenner says.

"Where this has a detrimental effect on the health and safety of our members, we take it seriously. Proper resourcing of the justice sector is important not only to the timely and efficient administration of the court system but also to ensure New Zealand remains a safe and just society."

The High Court judiciary is expected to deliver 90% of judgments within three months. In 2015, 92.3% of civil judgments were delivered within three months, and 77.9% were delivered within one month, while 99.5% of criminal judgments were delivered in less than three months and 96.5% within one month.

The government allocated $72 million for higher court services – which covers the work done by the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court – in the 2016 Budget, less than both the budgeted spend of $73.7 million and the estimated actual spend of $72.6 million last year.

In a 2016 Budget document, Treasury said the Ministry of Justice had plans to realise $85.6 million in savings over the next four years following a KPMG expenditure review, mostly in departmental spending.

"However, non-departmental appropriations, particularly legal aid, are experiencing demand-driven cost pressures," the document says. "Our conversations with the ministry indicate that these are beyond what it can solve through efficiency savings."


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