Part 2: Improving court services

Ministry of Justice: Modernising court services.

In this Part, we discuss:

Why improving court services is important

Typically, people using court services can feel vulnerable, stressed, or angry. Courts can be confusing places. An important function of the courts is the public administration of open justice according to the law.

Courts operate on a rules-based system, and processes must meet legislative requirements. This is the case whether paper-based or electronic systems are used. Most court services in New Zealand are paper-based. However, technology can transform how services are delivered and could improve the delivery of court services.

The Ministry wants to provide modern, accessible, and people-centred justice services. This has included looking to improve the quality and speed with which services are delivered. The Ministry considers modernising courts to be part of a wider goal of improving people's trust and confidence in the justice system.

The complex environment the Ministry works in

The courts uphold the law, and the disputes resolved by courts touch virtually all aspects of life in New Zealand. Important constitutional safeguards that enable people to have confidence in the courts must be protected when any change to the court system is made. These safeguards protect:

  • the rule of law;
  • the importance of judicial independence and impartiality;
  • open justice; and
  • everyone being equal before the law.

Courts rely on a range of people and organisations to operate. For criminal cases, this includes such court participants as judges, defence lawyers, and prosecutors. The Ministry has a role in supporting the judiciary to co-ordinate between the different parties to ensure that events in court can proceed as planned. A case is unlikely to go ahead until all the people involved are ready to proceed.

There needs to be a degree of operational independence between the different people and organisations. The prosecution, defence, and judiciary must not be able to influence each other. The independence of the judiciary and of the courts is a crucial component of a fair and impartial justice system and must be protected.

When making changes to court processes, the Ministry needs to work with a lot of different people and organisations. Modernising courts often also involves changes to legislation. Activities or changes in one part of the criminal justice system can have significant effects in other parts.

The introduction of AVL has affected every part of the criminal justice system. To take advantage of the improvements, the Ministry and Corrections needed to work together. This included introducing new technology and aligning business processes between them. The appropriateness of using AVL is for judges to decide. There are times when judges might not consider the use of AVL to be appropriate.

Moving some functions to the Central Registry is intended to make it easier for people and organisations, including small to medium-sized businesses, to use some court services. This includes dealing with applications to dispute a fine and dealing with civil claims.

Development of the Ministry's approach to improving court services

In 2012, the Ministry wanted to provide modern, accessible, and people-centred justice services. To achieve this, the Ministry focused on three main changes between 2012 and 2015. The Ministry said that these were from:

  • being "location focused" to "customer focused";
  • having "complex, paper-based processes" to "simpler, standardised processes"; and
  • having "money in buildings and staff" to "investment where it's needed".4

To make these changes, the Ministry set out initiatives that covered:

  • enabling legislation, which included the Judicature Modernisation Bill;
  • process improvement, which included centralising some tasks;
  • infrastructure and technology, which included technology for AVL; and
  • modern services, which included making some processes digital.

In 2013, the Ministry started the modernising courts programme, which was a large transformation programme. Between 2014 and 2015, the Ministry narrowed the scope of its work to primarily focus on centralising some court functions and standardising the delivery of its services throughout New Zealand.

Performance improvement framework reviews in 2012 and 2014, and our annual audit in 2014/15, raised concerns about the Ministry's performance in modernising courts. These concerns included:

  • needing to develop a picture of the desired result and clarity about the sequence of events necessary to achieve it;
  • needing to work with the judiciary;
  • needing to differentiate between the different organisations and people who use court services and what their needs are; and
  • the frequency with which the scope of the work the Ministry was doing to modernise courts changed.

In 2015, the Ministry changed its approach to modernising courts from a programme to a portfolio. The Ministry decided to treat modernising courts as a series of initiatives, recognising that the work was fluid and susceptible to change.

The series of initiatives were split into four areas that were each tied to an investment goal. The Ministry said the purpose of the four areas was to give decision-makers oversight of whether adequate progress was being made. These areas were:

  • reduce the length of time it takes to hear and resolve matters through the courts – for example, improving rostering and scheduling, and tribunals' case management;
  • improve the user experience – for example, enabling a text messaging service for defendants and constructing the Christchurch Justice Emergency Service Precinct;
  • simplify and standardise to improve productivity and efficiency – for example, centralising tasks and standardising services; and
  • reduce dependency on physical location – for example, video capability and developing a customer-friendly website.

The Ministry believed that taking a portfolio approach better reflected its view that modernising courts involved continuous improvement. The Ministry told us that this approach also recognised that the Ministry does not have direct influence over, or control of, all aspects of court systems.

Although our audit focused on the implementation of the three projects between 2012 and 2016, we observed that the development of the Ministry's approach, efforts, and activities to modernise courts changed a lot between 2012 and 2017.

In our 2014/15 annual audit opinion, we said that the period of prolonged uncertainty about scope had risked time and money being invested without a clear outcome. In our view, the Ministry's frequent changes in approach to modernising courts may have created uncertainty for organisations about the value of the Ministry's investment.

Although the approach to modernising courts was changing, our 2014/15 annual audit also said that the Ministry had displayed an inability to scope, manage, and monitor some significant projects. Given the broader concerns about the Ministry's performance in modernising courts, we wanted to have a closer look at how effectively the Ministry had managed its investment by examining three projects between 2012 and 2016.

Intended improvements of the three projects

Audio-Visual Links

After a successful trial in October 2012, the Ministry wanted to expand the use of AVL by implementing it in 14 more District Courts. This expansion project, a joint venture between the Ministry and Corrections, was part of a broader investment in infrastructure and technology.

The business case established that these courts complemented Corrections' investment in developing its network of Corrections facilities with AVL. The selected courts were considered to have the greatest level of improvements for Corrections, the Police, and the Public Defence Service.

At the start of the AVL project, the business case set out a range of intended improvements. These improvements were based on the Ministry's benefits realisation plan for justice sector organisations, which the Ministry prepared in November 2011 with input from Corrections and the Police. The business case expected that the benefits realisation plan would be updated to include the additional courts with AVL.

The intended improvements from AVL for justice sector organisations, lawyers, and judges were:

  • increasing safety for the public and people in custody;
  • minimised risk of people in custody escaping;
  • reducing the risk of contraband entering Corrections facilities;
  • cost savings for Corrections, primarily with transport costs;
  • reducing court time and hearings; and
  • reducing the amount of time lawyers spent travelling to consult with people in custody.

Court hearings using AVL typically take less than 15 minutes. Figure 1 describes the differences between appearing in court in person and using AVL. The types of court hearings include taking a plea, bail hearings, and setting the trial date.

The Ministry carried out a literature review and found that countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America used AVL for similar purposes.5

Figure 1
Difference between appearing in court in person and using Audio-Visual Links

For a person in custody, appearing at court in person involves getting up early and being subjected to a rub-down and metal detector body search before leaving the Corrections facility. To ensure the lowest number of transfer journeys, people in custody are transported together in vans in the morning, often regardless of what time of day the court hearing is scheduled. Travelling to court could be a short journey, or it could take several hours.

Once people in custody arrive at court, they are held in holding cells while they wait for their court hearing. At the end of the day, depending on the outcome of their court hearing, defendants return to the Corrections facility, where they are subject to strip-searching on re-entry, as required by legislation, and may go to a new cell in a different unit. This leaves people in custody having to find their social place in a unit again. If someone is entitled to be released from custody – for example, because they have been granted bail – they may be free to leave from the court.

For a person in custody, using AVL means they can remain in their unit and follow their usual routine, including attending any activities, such as literacy, numeracy, or chess. A Corrections officer will escort the person in custody to the area of the Corrections facility that provides AVL, and they will wait in a holding cell.

The person in custody needs to be ready 30 minutes before their scheduled remote court appearance. After their remote court appearance, they are escorted back to their unit, where they resume their normal daily routine. If someone is entitled to be released from custody – for example, because they have been granted bail – they are released once the necessary paperwork has been received from the relevant District Court, which can take a while.

Centralising tasks

To centralise some tasks previously carried out in District Courts throughout the country, a single process for these tasks needed to be agreed. This included developing decision-making trees that support consistent decision-making by deputy registrars at the Central Registry.

This can be challenging when each District Court previously had its own interpretations of, and ways to carry out, the rules that determine how tasks should be processed. District Courts also varied in how they resourced these tasks.

Centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine

Centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine was part of a bigger programme – the Courts and Criminal Matters Bill. In this programme, the Ministry saw centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine as a business enabler.

In a detailed design document for the project, the Ministry said the project was to:

  • provide a better service to prosecuting agencies and people with fines that have been sent to the District Court; and
  • transfer responsibility for processing applications to dispute a fine from the District Courts to the Central Registry.

Changes to legislation were required to achieve the intended improvements. These changes included addressing loopholes that prosecuting agencies had complained about and introducing simpler, more efficient, and user-friendly processes.

Figure 2 describes the intended improvements of centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine. At the start of the project, the Ministry said that the intended improvements were:

  • a more efficient and transparent system that would lead to better outcomes for people and improve staff productivity; and
  • a more efficient use of staff time because of closing a legislative loop hole.

Figure 2
The intended improvements of centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine

Before centralisation, people who wanted to dispute a fine had to post or personally deliver their application to their District Court. Sometimes, this meant that individuals had to take time off work to make the application. Applications could involve a great deal of paper once all the necessary documentation and evidence had been provided.

At the District Court, a deputy registrar would consider whether the application met any of the grounds set out in law for removing the fine from court and returning it to the prosecuting agency to settle the matter. As part of the decision-making process, the deputy registrar would typically send the application to the relevant prosecuting agency for its response. Some prosecuting agencies dealt with several District Courts, and we were told that each court had its own process.

How long it took to deal with applications in each court varied, with applicants sometimes waiting up to six weeks before they received a response. Prosecuting agencies could wait for two to three weeks before they heard whether the District Court had decided to uphold the application or not.

By centralising dealing with applications to dispute a fine, the Ministry wanted to simplify forms and the process. People would be able to complete the form and email their application directly to the Central Registry.

The Central Registry, which discharges some District Court responsibilities, would become the single point of contact for prosecuting agencies, instead of the 58 District Courts throughout New Zealand.

Civil claims

Dealing with civil claims was one of five functions that the Ministry decided to centralise. The Ministry established three high-level investment aims for centralising these five functions in its business case, which were:

  • developing an operating approach that supports increased transparency of the Ministry's performance, performance improvement, and quality;
  • improving consistency of administrative processes to maximise the similarities (people, processes, and technology) between services; and
  • putting in place a performance culture that enables the Ministry to continuously improve performance.

The Ministry said that the intended improvements from centralising the five functions were:

  • consistent customer service;
  • improved internal consistency;
  • a culture of continuous improvement;
  • freeing up the time of Ministry staff in the District Courts; and
  • reducing the number of full-time equivalent District Court staff through attrition.

The Ministry also expected that centralising these functions would contribute to its broader goal of reducing service delivery time by 50%. No specific intended improvements for centralising dealing with civil claims were established.

Centralising dealing with civil claims involved centralising dealing with Statements of Claim and applications for Judgment by Default.

A Statement of Claim is typically the document that a person or organisation uses to start civil action to settle a dispute. These civil disputes are typically about money. We were told that large creditors, including credit and finance companies and the Inland Revenue Department, make most of these claims. These creditors may represent clients or claim that money is owed to them. For example, they may pursue debts on behalf of small businesses or claim unpaid motor vehicle finance.

An application for a Judgment by Default can be made when there has been no response or action by a defendant after a specified time following the filing of a Statement of Claim and the issuing of a notice of proceedings. The Central Registry also deals with applications for Judgment by Default. However, if deputy registrars at the Central Registry are unsure about what judgment to make, the claim is returned to the relevant District Court for a judge to decide.

Figure 3 describes the intended improvements of centralising dealing with civil claims.

Figure 3
The intended improvements of centralising dealing with civil claims

Normally, District Court staff deal with Statements of Claim and applications for Judgment by Default. We were told that dealing with these claims was time-consuming and involved a lot of paperwork. There was also no consistency between the various District Court deputy registrars in the decision-making process, the outcomes of decisions, and the length of time it took to deal with the claims.

By centralising dealing with Statements of Claims and applications for Judgment by Default, the Ministry wanted to increase the speed of dealing with these claims, provide greater consistency in decision-making by deputy registrars, and make it easier for people recovering money to know who to contact if they have a query about their application.

4: Ministry of Justice, Modernising Courts and Tribunals 2012-2015.

5: Ministry of Justice (2016), Optimising Audio-Visual Links between court and custody: A literature review.