Specialist courts hailed for reducing trial waits, looking out for victims in sexual violence cases

Specialist courts are to become a permanent fixture for cases involving sexual violence in Auckland and Whangārei following the resounding success of a pilot scheme in the regions which saw wait times for trials reduced by 110 days on average.

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Kirsten Lummis discussed the benefits of the specialist courts on TVNZ1’s Breakfast. Source: Breakfast

The pilot scheme, carried out in Auckland and Whangārei over two years, was sparked by a critical 2015 Law Commission report which called for a specialist court for victims of sexual violence.

More than 500 victims of sexual violence have seen their wait times for trials reduced by 110 days on average thanks to the pilot scheme.

Many of the victims involved in the scheme reported not feeling retraumatised, or less retraumatised, while going through the process. It also found more or earlier guilty pleas as a result of the court.

Crown prosecutor Kirsten Lummis, who has prosecuted "five or six" cases in the specialist courts, said there have been "some real changes" for the courts and the victims involved.

"Case management for judges take a much more closer management of cases, judges are assigned earlier in the piece so we know how judges are going to be leading into it, which means that we can get telephone conferences," she told TVNZ1's Breakfast today.

"Courts are quite bureaucratic organisations and there’s a lot of red tape to get through and we'd send off emails or ring people and it was never clear whether you were talking to the right person," she said. "But here we have dedicated case managers who, and the report shows, that they have been appreciated by defence, the lawyers, the judges – everybody has been very pleased with the case management of these cases going through."

Ms Lummis said victims' experience in the court system has greatly improved when going through the specialist courts, according to the report.

She said judges taking time before the trial to greet the victim - who is giving evidence through closed circuit television - makes a huge difference.

"The judges will just pop in and say hi, and a really basic meet-and-greet - you know, 'Hi, this is how this works, this is who I am, you're going to be seeing me through the TV screen but I am a real person’'. And they're talking about that, from the complainants, about that really basic human interaction that previously, they would only see the judge on the screen. He or she is remote."

She said the specialist courts have also made giving evidence a less traumatising experience.

"One of the other positives in the sexual violence court is the evidence is often pre-recorded on video, or evidential videos made much closer to the time of the offending that are replayed.

"The pilot has allowed for complainants not to be present during the playing of that video, so previously they were present and would sit there and watch as the jury watched it. And that would also involve breaks in their evidence, so the morning tea break would happen and they'd be waiting around, getting more and more anxious."

Ms Lummis noted that cross-examination "is still an area where there is room for movement and change", but added that there has been a growing awareness among the judiciary around sexual violence.

"There are only a limited number of judges in Auckland that do this work, and to do it they have to have had the training...which involves talking to some of the academics about their research," she said. 

Ms Lummis said she "absolutely" recommends for the pilot scheme to be rolled out elsewhere in the country.

"The beauty of what’s happening is that there actually hasn't been a legislative change for it, so there's nothing stopping other centres going ahead and making the same changes," she explained. 

"I know that there has been talk about some of the judges from other areas that have come up and done some of the training and they've gone away to their various regional courts and have instigated some of the changes they have in Auckland," she said. "But the case management and the dedicated funding and the ability to have the judge following through has really made a better, significant difference."