29 Nov 2009

Defendants, lawyers 'colluding' over court process

11:20 am on 29 November 2009

Defendants are colluding with their lawyers or engineering their dismissal to try to delay the court process, the author of a critical review of New Zealand's legal aid system says.

Dame Margaret Bazley says this risks undermining public confidence in the justice system and creates unnecessary expense.

Dame Margaret says some legal aid clients, particularly those who are being held on remand and who face prison sentences if convicted, have every incentive to delay court proceedings.

She says that lengthens the time they spend on remand, which is discounted from their prison sentence.

Dame Margaret says she has been told of experienced defendants colluding with their lawyers to get the maximum legal aid fee and prolong a case for mutual gain.

She says she is also aware of defendants engineering the dismissal of their lawyers in the final phase of a hearing in order to get a new hearing or to engineer grounds for an appeal.

Dame Margaret has recommended that a case management system be introduced for some repeat legal aid clients.

Call for more education about court process

A prisoner aid group wants less money spent on court security guards and metal detectors and more on educating people about the court process.

Prisoners' Aid and Rehabilitation Society national director Lyanne Kerr says the process is complicated and the language used is littered with jargon.

Ms Kerr says too often, offenders do not actually understand at the end of their sentencing whether they have been given community work or a prison term.

"They're not sure about what's going on. Often they have their children there who are jumping up and down or shouting ... so it's a really high stress time.

"The law is complex and people just don't know what's happened to them often."

In her review, Dame Margaret says she found the courthouse to be a bewildering and unfriendly place.

Dame Margaret says she was horrified to see duty solicitors have defendants make snap decisions that affected their future while the court and a full public gallery waited and watched.

She recommends that the Government explore the feasibility of having skilled and professional people at court to help court users.