26 Apr 2013

New courtroom arrangement criticised

9:42 pm on 26 April 2013

Criminal defence lawyers and the Labour Party say they hoped the Courts Minister might have had higher priorities than to worry about reshuffling furniture in courtrooms.

Chester Borrows on Friday announced he is trialling a new type of courtroom set-up, where those accused are placed directly in front of judges instead of being in the dock.

Mr Borrows says during his 30 years as a police officer and lawyer, he often saw offenders leave court detached from what went on.

He has launched a pilot study in the North Shore District Court which has certain offenders sitting beside their lawyers to improve their understanding and engagement.

Mr Borrows says the reconfiguration is about making defendants more involved, engaged and accountable by not being so far away from the judge.

But Labour's justice spokesperson Andrew Little questions the minister's priorities. He says Mr Borrows has a pet project at the front of his mind, when he should instead be concerning himself with backlogs, funding cuts and file processing problems in the Family Court.

Criminal Bar Association president Tony Bouchier says it sees no merit in the change, especially when courts have such large backlogs to deal with.

"The Minister of Courts has wanted to rearrange the deck chairs in the courtroom. We've tried to see the value this adds to the process, what value it adds to justice and we really can't see any value at all."

Chester Borrows says the new arrangement in the North Shore court will affect people facing charges such as drink-driving, speeding and theft. Anyone already in custody will remain in the dock, as will anyone considered by the judiciary to pose a security threat.

Mr Borrows says he doesn't believe the rearranged set-up might lead to more attacks on judges.

"Yes, I am convinced that it's a safe thing to do. It's certainly no more dangerous than what we're doing at the moment, which is frequently having people go out of a courtroom having been completely disengaged in the process and not willing and no incentive to comply with the orders and the resolutions of the court they've been appearing before."

The mother of a high-profile murder victim supports the pilot study.

Rachel Kitson's daughter Vanessa Pickering was murdered in 2010 by Malcolm Chaston. Ms Kitson believes people like him would certainly feel vulnerable if they were placed in the centre of the court.

"I think it's a good idea to take them away from their own comfort zone - being backed up against a wall and all the officers around them. They would take note of the surroundings and everyone there can actually get a good visual on the person."