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Court Closures & “Access to Justice”: a Community Law perspective
COMMUNITY LAW CONNECT ARTICLE, JANUARY 2013
In early October 2012, the government announced sweeping changes to court services, including court closures, a reduction in court sitting times, and increasing the use of technology in courts, allowing for example for “remote” appearances in court and for some traditional court services to be provided online.
A few months later, with some of these changes in full swing, Community Law has had a chance to assess the tangible early effects, and to predict the impact further changes to court services across Aotearoa will have.
It is vital at the outset to note that Community Law embraces the idea that government (and other sectors, including our own community sector) can do more to streamline services, improve systems and cut down on bureaucratic red tape. Technology provides some wonderful opportunities to make our justice system more accessible, to reduce inefficiency and hopefully improve outcomes for anyone interacting with the justice system (from victims to offenders, lawyers to court staff, family members to support workers, and judges to police officers). The initiative, for example, to make it possible for people to apply to the Disputes Tribunal online means that New Zealand’s most accessible forum for dealing with lower level disputes remains relevant and accessible into the future.
Nevertheless, the question of technology has two distinct thorns: Firstly, 320,000 households in New Zealand, urban and rural, do not have access to the internet (whether because the cost is prohibitive, broadband is not available, or internet literacy is low). Many of Community Law’s clients cannot navigate complex government websites, and staff of community organisations or institutions such as public libraries do not have adequate training to assist either. Secondly, technological improvements must be available and operating to a satisfactory standard before court services are further reduced.
Further, Community Law remains concerned that closing small and rural courts, without providing adequate alternative services, is a move against accessibility. Angela Smith, a lawyer at Hamilton Community Law Centre, comments: “We are very concerned about the impact closures will have on the Disputes and Tenancy Tribunals, for example. These tribunals are an integral, low-cost dispute resolution mechanism and hearings are heard at the local court house. If the local court is changed to a hearing-only court and only opened for a specific number of days in the year, the Disputes Tribunal and Tenancy Tribunal hearings in these communities may cease to exist, or people will have to wait a long time to have their dispute heard.”
Community Law also believes that the problems arising now in those communities where courts have been closed will be replicated throughout the country. Common issues and complaints are already emerging, such as the often significant expense and difficulty of travelling from home to the nearest court. Assuming someone has a registered and warranted car, the cost of petrol over very long distances is prohibitive. In many places, public transport is severely limited, and does not align with court opening hours. Individuals needing to appear in court may have to cover accommodation and food costs, and may also miss out on a day or more of work and therefore wages. The direct consequence is that many defendants do not show up for appearances, causing adjournments and expensive delays. In the Wellington region, for example, Police have said that more warrants for arrest are being issued. Increased arrests also mean that defendants are being brought to court without their wallets, cell phones and even shoes, and with no obvious means of getting home. Police are using precious resources, when those resources could be better used on other priorities.
We support the Ministry’s further moves to simplify complicated court applications and to make it possible to apply for some court orders online. But reducing access is not the best way to improve justice outcomes for our vulnerable and isolated communities. Access to courts is access to justice in a very concrete sense. The vulnerable communities the Courts serve and involve need access to the Courts in order to have confidence in them.
Community Law is concerned at the gap in Court services no longer provided at the doorstep of New Zealand’s communities. Although the responsibility for these services lies with Government, by its nature Community Law will try to find ways to step in and fill the gaps. We hope for increased funding levels (and if not increased, then at least maintained) to make this possible. Community Law will continue to monitor the situation and advocate for increased access to justice.