Part 1: Introduction

Ministry of Justice: Modernising court services.

In this Part, we discuss:

Why we did the audit

Courts have a distinct role that requires them to be kept separate from the executive arm of government (for example, the Ministry of Justice). Maintaining the independence of the courts is important for ensuring that justice is not compromised.1 The courts must be, and must be seen to be, separate and independent.

Two important roles of the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) are supporting the judiciary and administering the court systems for both criminal and civil cases. The Ministry provides a range of services that are aimed at contributing to a safe and just New Zealand. These services include:

  • criminal history checks;
  • collecting fines;
  • legal aid;
  • public defence;
  • transcription; and
  • security in courts.

The Ministry is also the lead justice sector organisation.2 This means that the Ministry is responsible for co-ordinating and encouraging collaboration between different justice sector organisations.

We did this audit because the Ministry's work to improve court systems has involved a significant range of changes to court systems in recent years. Given the importance of the courts, we wanted to provide assurance to Parliament and the public about how these changes were implemented and what improvements have been achieved.

What we looked at

We carried out a performance audit to assess the Ministry's investment in modernising courts to improve efficiency and people's experience of the courts.

We examined how effectively the Ministry managed its investment in three projects between 2012 and 2016. The three projects we looked at were Audio-Visual Links (AVL), centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine under section 78B of the Summary Proceedings Act 1957 (applications to dispute a fine), and centralising dealing with Notices of Civil Proceedings (civil claims, which involve claims to recover money).

In this report, we refer to these as the three projects. A focus of the three projects has been improving customer service and efficiency by streamlining the services the Ministry provides.

For each project, we looked at:

  • the project management practices used to implement each project; and
  • whether the intended improvements had been met or were likely to be met.

We wanted to estimate the return on investment each project has made, which would enable us to assess the Ministry's management of its investment.

Why we chose the three projects

AVL enables people in custody awaiting trial to attend short court appearances by video from their Corrections facility, instead of appearing in court in person.

We chose to look at AVL because it:

  • required the Ministry and the Department of Corrections (Corrections) to work together;
  • affected many people and justice sector organisations (for example, people in custody awaiting trial, the judiciary, lawyers, and New Zealand Police);
  • involved an investment in physical assets, particularly audio-visual equipment;
  • involved changes to business processes; and
  • was considered an important step in modernising the courtroom.

We also looked at the Ministry's projects to centralise two functions dealing with applications to dispute a fine and dealing with civil claims. Centralising involves moving some court functions from the 58 District Courts throughout the country to a single location – the Central Registry.

We looked at centralising these court functions into the Central Registry because they:

  • were an important part of changing the way the Ministry interacts with people who use court services;
  • were expected to improve the efficiency of court processes, including providing consistent customer experiences throughout the country; and
  • involved standardising some court systems and processes.

We chose to look at centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine, and dealing with civil claims because they had:

  • the highest volume of tasks that have been centralised;
  • been carried out by 58 District Courts; and
  • been centralised between 2012 and 2014, which provided enough time for improvements to be made and measured.

We provide more information about each of the projects we audited in Part 2.

What we did not look at

We did not audit the performance of the judiciary, lawyers, or any organisations in the justice sector other than the Ministry. We did not assess the effectiveness of the administrative support provided to courts or tribunals.

Although we discuss the Ministry's approach to modernising courts in Part 2, we did not audit its overall effectiveness.

How we did our audit

To carry out our audit, we reviewed project management documents for the three projects. These included:

  • business cases;
  • project initiation documents;
  • benefit realisation plans;
  • project status reports;
  • minutes from meetings;
  • implementation plans; and
  • estimated costs.

We interviewed staff from the Ministry's head office involved in the three projects. We wanted to understand the internal processes used to project manage the three projects and how the Ministry tracked whether the intended improvements were achieved.

We spoke to a range of staff who worked at the Central Registry, Auckland District Court, Manukau District Court, North Shore District Court, Waitakere District Court, Rotorua District Court, and Tauranga District Court.

We interviewed the judiciary and a range of people and organisations working in the justice sector that are affected by changes to how the courts operate. They included District Court judges, private lawyers, public defence lawyers, the New Zealand Police (the Police), and Corrections.

We talked to a range of organisations that were affected by centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine and dealing with civil claims, such as two prosecuting agencies (Auckland Transport and the Police), the Inland Revenue Department, and credit and finance companies.3 We collated their experiences of these changes to the process to develop an understanding of some organisations' experiences of the changes.

We observed the use of AVL in Tauranga District Court, Rotorua District Court, Auckland District Court, and Manukau District Court. We also met with Correction's staff at Mt Eden Corrections Facility and Waikeria Prison.

We looked at the Ministry's financial information to calculate the return on investment for each project and track the value of the improvements made.

We examined the Ministry's analysis of the data it had collected for each project. This included determining how effective the Ministry's measures were and whether the Ministry used the data it collected to highlight areas where further improvements might be possible.

The structure of this report

In Part 2, we describe the environment the Ministry operates in and its efforts to improve court services. We also describe how the three projects have made some changes in the delivery of court services.

In Part 3, we examine whether the Ministry has tracked and measured the improvements made. We look at what information the Ministry has recorded and what improvements people say have been made.

In Part 4, we examine how the Ministry engaged with organisations and people affected by its investment to improve court services.

In Part 5, we examine the Ministry's governance and accountability for the three projects.

In Part 6, we look at changes the Ministry told us it has made to its project governance structure and processes. We also recommend improvements to how feedback is collected and how improvements are measured.

1: For an overview of the role of courts and the judiciary, see

2: Organisations in the justice sector include the Ministry, the Department of Corrections, the New Zealand Police, the Crown Law Office, the Serious Fraud Office, and the Ministry of Social Development (for youth justice).

3: Throughout this report, when referring to people who are involved in applications to dispute a fine or civil claims, we are specifically referring to these organisations unless we state otherwise. We acknowledge that the Ministry works in a complex environment and that these people do not reflect the experience of everyone involved. For example, it does not include members of the public.