Pressure to reduce the backlog of cases in Tāmaki Makaurau has seen police shift court preparation work to officers based in other regions.  

It’s the latest in a long line of changes made in recent months to get on top of wait times, which have lengthened in the district courts over the past five years and particularly in Auckland since the Covid-19 lockdowns.  

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Last year Auckland metro courts experienced a 14 percent increase in active criminal cases, whereas the rest of the county saw a decrease of 3 percent.  

Data to July showed the average number of days to resolve criminal cases in the District Court had jumped from 114 to 176 since 2017. 

For cases where a jury had been selected the wait time was longer. Between March 2018 and March 2023 there was an 81 percent increase (about 1600 cases) in the number of district court jury trial cases awaiting trial with the average time to resolve a case at 494 days, up from the pre-Covid average of 374 days.

Jury trials make up about a tenth of district court criminal cases, yet take up about a third of the overall sitting time. 

The Chief District Court Judge implemented demand-based court scheduling in May 2023, in which judges were placed into courts with the largest backlogs. 

Police faced cost pressures to deal with the additional sitting hours and had to bring staff in from off the frontlines to be prosecutors. 

The majority of these staff have since returned to their roles, however some do remain and demand-based scheduling will continue until the end of 2024, which will have a significant impact on frontline staff, according to a July Cabinet paper.  

The response to the new scheduling was dubbed Operation Surge and costs the police about half a million dollars a month.  

This will be eased somewhat by the allocation of funding earlier in the year for 78 more police prosecutors. So far 33 new prosecutions staff have been hired with the backing of $26 million from the Government for reinforcements. 

Police are in the midst of a mass overhaul of the way they manage caseloads.  

The three-year programme, ReFrame, will work alongside similar efforts in the sector to modernise and streamline the justice system.  

It aims to improve outcomes for Māori, minimise victim re-traumatisation, make access to justice more equitable and shorten the period of time people are kept on remand.  

Primarily paid for out of the Proceeds of Crime Fund, $44.5m is expected to go toward the programme with $12m coming from police baseline funding, $25m from the Crime Fund and the balance from Corrections.  

It includes changes such as updates to digital systems and information sharing agreements as well as improving evidence collection and disclosure practices. 

The latter has been a contributing factor to delays in the court system, with lawyers telling Newsroom earlier this year that slow disclosure from police as well as the way the law was designed was leading to later guilty pleas and more jury trials.

For the year ended April, 12 percent of hearings were rescheduled because of outstanding or incomplete disclosure.

Defendants cannot properly enter a guilty plea until they have the evidence on which the charges are based. 

The way the Criminal Procedure Act is set up is that individuals can be required to enter a plea once they have initial disclosure, which is the police summary of facts and any criminal history the defendant may have, but not necessarily any of the evidence on which the charge is based. 

Evidence was also becoming more complex and taking longer to arrive with expert agencies such as the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, the public health and forensics Crown research institute that is also under increased workload pressure. 

Lawyers would, of course, not recommend a client enter a guilty plea without knowing exactly what evidence police had and whether the charges would stack up as convictions.  

Flowing on from this is the reality of more people being on remand, and for longer.  

The Government considered amending the law to require more information to be handed over at initial disclosure, but police were not in favour.

A Cabinet paper from July explained that resourcing would be a problem. Crown Law was also opposed to any mandated changes, with feedback stating there was insufficient evidence the proposals would be effective.

The New Zealand Law Society said it could also increase duty solicitor workload. 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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