In a move away from punishment, the ‘alternative practices’ of specialist drug, alcohol and youth courts are now being rolled out across all the criminal courts.

The Chief District Court Judge has announced the effective, best-practice approaches founded in the country’s specialist courts will be rolled out to the whole district court system.

The mainstreaming of what was previously seen as an “alternative approach” to justice gives hope for widespread justice system reforms, which are based on evidence and account for people’s culture, background and experiences.

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu has announced the beginning of an overhaul of the country’s district courts, through what is called Te Ao Mārama model.

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The new approach will see the practices developed within specialist courts, such as the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment court, the Matariki Court, Pasifika Court, Rangatahi Court and the Young Adult Court List, integrated into the district court system – starting in Hamilton.

These “solutions-focused” practices aim to better understand the person who has offended, and what has led to the offending, as well as what they need to rehabilitate.

The approach will encourage offenders, victims, whānau, iwi, community, social and health services, and the judge to more fully and effectively engage in the process.

“The District Court is to be a place where everyone can come to seek justice, regardless of their means or abilities and regardless of their culture or ethnicity, and regardless of who they are or where they are from.”
– Judge Heemi Taumaunu

A lot of the changes will be practical, and aim to make the justice process more accessible.

They will include ensuring the judge has better access to comprehensive information about the offender and their background (culture, health, mental health, addictions, finances); inviting members of the offender’s and victim’s family and community into the court, ensuring immediate access to wraparound health and social services and programmes; and the use of plain language and generally toning down formalities and hierarchy.

There will also be widespread use of te reo Māori and tikanga Māori; and it will also involve greater use of speakers (as opposed to costly written reports) to outline a person’s cultural background, through Section 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002.

“The District Court is to be a place where everyone – whether they are defendants, witnesses, complainants, victims, parties, or whānau – can come to seek justice, regardless of their means or abilities and regardless of their culture or ethnicity, and regardless of who they are or where they are from,” Judge Taumaunu said.

Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu has unveiled a new vision for the court process, which is based on understanding and accessibility, rather than punishment. Photo: Supplied

Currently, defendants, victims and whānau were left to navigate the confusing and often intimidating court process without support, he said.

“As a result, they are unlikely to fully engage with the process and will often leave feeling unheard.”

This is the first major justice announcement since the new Labour Government was sworn in, last week.

For the first time, the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court will be included in the family jurisdiction, with a focus on helping mothers with substance issues heal and keep their children. Photo: Cass Mason

While Labour spoke extensively about justice reform last term, there was little action.

Now this announcement shows the country will continue to move towards implementing the types of changes recommended by advocates, scholars, and its own government-commissioned working groups.

It will also give those impacted by the system a reason to hope that more substantive reforms are on the way – whether it’s through the Labour-led Government, or through a judiciary that’s ready to transform the country’s approach to justice.

Of course, the judiciary sits independently of the executive branch of government, but the changes to how victims, offenders and whānau will progress through the court system, and the types of supports they will be able to access, is in-line with the thinking of Parliament’s left-bloc, including Labour, the Green Party and the Māori Party.

This significant milestone shows how the different branches of the state are finally moving in the same direction, after more than 30 years of calls for reform were largely passed over in favour of a punitive approach to law and order.

No law changes are needed to roll out the Te Ao Mārama model, but during his announcement at Waikato University, Taumaunu said both the judiciary and the executive had a role to play in the important task of transforming the courts.

Taumaunu said there was nothing radical or new in what the courts were doing.

Since the rates of Māori imprisonment began to rapidly rise (currently 52 percent of the prison population versus 17 percent of the general population), off the back of the ‘urban drift’ of the mid-20th century, there had been studies, reports and calls for justice system transformation.

Adopting all of the conventions of the British, and almost entirely ignoring the country’s other founding culture, had resulted in a court system inconsistent with te ao Māori and tikanga principles.

This “monocultural myopia” meant the court felt like a foreign entity to Māori.

Through Te Ao Mārama the judicial system hoped to further address historical calls for transformative change, Taumaunu said, adding that these calls for transformation were “not a modern phenomenon, nor just another worthy contemporary cause”.

“I expect that the implementation of the Te Ao Mārama model will mean that the journey through the court space will look very different to how it looks today.”

Along with the incorporation of a range of practices currently used across the different specialist courts, Hamilton would also get its own Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (AODT Court)

This would be similar to those piloted with success in Auckland and Waitakere, and treated substance abuse and addiction as a health issue, which could be addressed with support and treatment in an effort to help offenders heal and rehabilitate.

In a new move, the AODT Court in Hamilton would also cover the family jurisdiction.

Until now, the AODT Court has been for criminal offending. This move recognised the part addiction played in children ending up in state care, and their subsequently higher chance of coming into the criminal justice system later in life.

The AODT Court would be an option for mothers who have had their children removed, or were at risk of losing their children, due to substance issues.

The Care and Protection stream of the AODT Court should enable mothers to retain care of their children, with the wraparound support that was required to ensure this is plausible, Taumaunu said.

Te Ao Mārama model would be established in the Hamilton District Court by mid-next year, and then rolled out throughout the country’s court system.

Each district court would work with local iwi and community leaders to create their own appropriate model, which was in-keeping with the objectives of Te Ao Mārama and using best-practice.

“Focus will be placed on providing effective social, emotional and physical outcomes for offenders, victims and whānau.”

The country’s specialist courts will continue to function as centres for excellence, which the district courts can draw from.

“I expect that the implementation of the Te Ao Mārama model will mean that the journey through the court space will look very different to how it looks today,” Taumaunu said.

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