Justice ‘precinct’ should never be repeated – Appeal Court judge

Christchurch’s new Justice and Emergency Services Precinct is a “magnificent achievement” says the President of the Court of Appeal, but he hopes the concept will never be repeated.

Justice Stephen Kos and judges from the Wellington-based Court of Appeal sat in the new precinct for the first time this week, hearing local appeals.

The court regularly sits in Auckland, but only resumed its sittings in Christchurch last year, six years after the city’s earthquakes, when it heard cases in the old Durham Street Court House before the courts moved to the new precinct in November.

Justice Kos made his comments after seeing the new complex of buildings stretching between Lichfield and Tuam Streets, which houses the courts, the police, the Public Defence Office, and emergency services.

He added his views to the expressions of concern from Nigel Hampton QC and Jonathan Eaton QC, senior Christchurch legal counsel who had expressed their opposition to the courts and the police being linked so closely.

“The precinct is a magnificent achievement but it is one I hope we never repeat,” said Justice Kos.

“I think, every day in small towns around the country we give school children a lesson in civics when they walk down the street and see the police station on one side of the road and the court house on the other.

“It is symbolic of the functional disconnection between the branches of government. It is an important lesson,” he said.

The new precinct jammed together the courts with the police, Corrections, and the Public Defence Service office. The symbolism given by the usual separation had been lost. “It is an important lesson that should not be dropped.”

But having said that, he also said the new facilities were better than the “appalling” Court House in Durham Street, which only had history on its side – justice had been administered beside Victoria Square for about 150 years.

“I can see that here the facilities are better for the public, for jurors, and frankly for judges,” said Justice Kos.

The Court of Appeal issues more than 600 judgments a year, with 10 judges, who sit three-at-a-time on each case. Its main task is to “superintend” jury trials all over the country, with much of its work coming from the busy courts from Hamilton northwards.

The court is issuing judgments faster than new appeals are being filed. At present it aims to have judgments in criminal cases out within six weeks of the hearing, and within three months for civil cases. It is meeting those targets.

He said the judges sensed that there were problems with the court’s sentencing guideline judgments which set sentencing levels for various kinds of offending. Some of the judgments referred to constantly at sentencing sessions were now more than 10 years old, and social mores had changed over time.

To be useful, the guidelines had to be “under-articulated” to leave some discretion for sentencing judges, which raised the question of whether it was useful to have them in the first place in a situation where they were meant to provide consistency.

He noted that a Sentencing Council had been legislated for in 2007 but repealed in 2017 without ever being formed. The new Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, had said he was now considering the proposal again. As an expert body, a council would be able to consider a range of sentencing guidelines, by bringing in analytical skills from both government and the judiciary, and from social science.

Other jurisdictions, including Great Britain, already have sentencing councils.

The move to switch more trials to judge-alone hearings, rather than jury trials, had increased the workload of the District Court. Although fewer jury trials were needed, judges were now required to produce detailed judgments giving all their reasoning and decisions to make the verdict robust enough to meet judicial standards.

Detailed decisions of dozens of pages were now needed in place of jury verdicts that may have been just one or two words.

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