District Court moves to speed up sentencing of high number of remand prisoners

The District Court has taken steps to speed up sentencing of the high number of remand prisoners, including allocating extra time for this in Auckland, Manukau and Christchurch courts.

Prison generic file image. Source: Thinkstock

Prisoners held on remand account for more than one third of the prison population and about 1200 of those prisoners are awaiting sentence. 

The Acting Chief District Court Judge, John Walker, says with the support of the Ministry of Justice and Corrections, he started working on measures some weeks ago to address the issue.

“This has led me to be able to allocate eight extra judge-weeks in Auckland, Manukau and Christchurch courts for sentencing remand prisoners,” Judge Walker says.

Earlier this week Judge Walker also issued a direction to lawyers aimed at ensuring sentencing dates are met and court time is not wasted.

Among the other measures, the direction requires lawyers to certify 10 days in advance of a sentencing hearing that the case is ready to proceed or to identify any barriers to it proceeding. 

This is to ensure those issues can be addressed, and if necessary, the court time reallocated to another case.

Judge Walker says, as well, Corrections has undertaken to be more proactive in sentencing preparation, including resolving any difficulties with finding suitable addresses for electronically monitored sentences earlier in the process.

He says all parts of the District Court are under pressure, and the Chief and Principal Judges move judicial resources around to relieve the most acute pressure points, where it is feasible.

“The fact there have been inadequate judicial numbers to deal with the increasing seriousness and complexity in the criminal jurisdiction and backlogs arising in the Family Court because of legislative reform in that jurisdiction was acknowledged in the 2019 Budget," he says. 

The Government lifted the cap on District Court Judge numbers to 182 and made immediate provision for 12 Judges to be appointed.

“While we await those extra appointments, and having identified the pressure on sentencing dates, I have put additional judicial resources into this priority area," Judge Walker says.

He says many of the remand prisoners have been waiting a long time to be sentenced.

“People have a right to have timely access to justice, especially when they are being held in custody."

Judge Walker says without some priority given to remand prisoners, they are more likely to be released when they come up for sentencing because of time already served. 

Remand prisoners, unlike prisoners formally sentenced to jail terms, are not eligible for rehabilitation programmes while in custody, which has implications for community safety, he says.