The Upper Hutt Court & “Access to Justice”

Nadine Warbrick, Community Lawyer
Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley

The Ministry of Justice confirmed at the start of October that the Upper Hutt Court House and services will be permanently closed and that these services will not be replaced. Upper Hutt District Court lists will continue to be run from the Lower Hutt District Court House until the full merge occurs. We’re told that all changes to the new “Hutt Valley District Court” are to be in place around April 2013.

Likely changes include:

  • A complete merging of the Courts by April 2013 (this means joint Court ‘list’ days, no longer operating as separate districts).
  • Centralised Court administration services.
  • A call centre with an 0800 number for initial information relating to hearings.
  • Renovations for the Lower Hutt District Court House (including increased security and separate entries and exits for victims and witnesses).
  • The increased use of technology (such as Audio Visual links with Rimutaka Prison, aiming to reduce demand on transportation resources and increase available spaces in the Court House cells).

Lawyers and other professionals, as well as by Court users, have already made comments in the media about how the Court closure directly reduces access to justice in Upper Hutt, by removing local resources and not replacing them with adequate alternatives. At recent public meetings in Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt, members of the legal profession, justice sector representatives and community service providers also discussed the proposed changes. The Ministry of Justice confirmed that they will not replace resources or services in Upper Hutt and neither will they provide resources to contribute to the efforts of others in the community to do so. In short, there will be no satellite Court or Ministry-funded Court-related services provided in Upper Hutt.

The Upper Hutt community are already feeling the burden and have raised their voices and concerns throughout the process. Some common issues and complaints are already emerging, such as:

  • The expense of travelling to Lower Hutt District Court House from Upper Hutt – in particular, those on a benefit cannot find extra money to travel to and from Court for appearances. For some clients, the trip involves transferring from bus to train. Some lawyers are now giving rides to clients to the Lower Hutt Court House. For litigants living in suburbs around Upper Hutt, the trip to Upper Hutt is in itself significant.
  • Defendants not showing up for appearances, causing adjournments and expensive delays. Police have said that more warrants for arrest are being issued. While some defendants think this makes it easier to get a ride to Lower Hutt with the Police, they still struggle to find ways to get back to Upper Hutt.
  • Increased arrests also mean that defendants are being brought to Court without their wallets, cell phones and even shoes, and with no obvious means of getting home. Police are using precious resources, when those resources could be better used on other priorities.
  • Lawyers from Upper Hutt are now being called on far more often to take affidavits. This puts pressure on their already busy schedules. Some of the Justices of the Peace are already providing extra clinics or are making themselves more freely available – stepping into a gap which until now had been provided for, and funded, by the Registry.
  • Upper Hutt lawyers, once used to skipping across the road to Court, are now having to find temporary space in Lower Hutt to work from in-between Court appearances. Upper Hutt lawyers are no longer receiving the same service from the Court, as they can no longer liaise face-to-face with Upper Hutt Court staff.
  • It has become harder for those in Upper Hutt to file documents, especially with urgency (such as Protection Order applications). Even though some Family Court or Disputes Tribunal applications can now be filed online, a great many members of the Upper Hutt community don’t have access to the internet. Court users often go to the most accessible internet, at the Upper Hutt Library, but staff at the library are not legal advisers and can’t properly show people how to access legal information and assist clients to complete Court applications or documentation.
  • The Upper Hutt Citizens Advice Bureau and other lay community organisations are also having to provide initial legal information (such as what forms to use) and to assist in filling out Court applications or response documents. They sometimes find this understandably challenging.

Other issues caused by merging the two Courts have also been identified by the community, including:

  • The loss of local, community and institutional knowledge, and appropriate local responses, for Upper Hutt court users.
  • Increased pressure on free community-based services to increase availability and hold more legal clinics (particularly Community Law, the CAB, and Justices of the Peace). If these organisations and providers are not properly supported, the community predicts a general decrease in access to justice.
  • Stressed Court staff during the transitional phase, with job losses and increased demand a certainty.
  • Confusion among Court users (both professionals and Court clients) if the operational merger is not transparent and information is not easily accessible.

How will the community respond?

Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley is very concerned at the gap in Court services no longer provided at the doorstep of Upper Hutt residents. Although the responsibility for these services lies with Government, Community Law nevertheless wants to provide more support to Court users and community providers in Upper Hutt. Community Law will continue to advocate for increased access to justice, and will aim to support the Upper Hutt community to provide more assistance in this, without extra funding or resources.

Traditionally, Community Law has provided only one outreach clinic a week to the Upper Hutt community. We currently hold a free legal clinic at the Upper Hutt Library, every Monday 2-3pm. We also hold regular clinics at Orongomai Marae on the first Friday of every month, 12pm-1pm. We are looking to expand our presence in Upper Hutt, but this will require a careful evaluation of how to best distribute our most precious resources: staff and time.

We will also offer free training to other community providers, such as the CAB, to help their volunteers upskill and become more confident in responding appropriately to assistance requests from Court users.

In broader developments, there is also a genuine interest among Police and local community-based organisations to look at high quality restorative justice programmes and community justice panels for the Hutt Valley. This could be an opportunity to push for local alternatives which might also be more constructive for all participants. The Police are consulting on using restorative justice in the Hutt Valley with the Ministry of Justice, Department of Corrections and Probation Services, and Community Law will certainly look to be involved in any collaboration that eventuates.

Nationally, Community Law is very concerned at the declared intention to close other small and rural courts without providing adequate alternative services, and we believe that the problems happening for the Upper Hutt community will be replicated throughout the country. Cost-cutting must not be allowed to reduce access to justice. Access to courts is access to justice in a very concrete sense. The vulnerable communities the Courts serve and involve need access to the Courts in order to have confidence in them. We support the Ministry’s move to simplify complicated court applications and to make it possible to apply for some court orders online. But reducing access is never the best way to improve justice outcomes for our vulnerable and isolated communities.

If you have ideas about how Community Law can assist in bridging the gap to achieve increased access to justice, please do not hesitate to let us know. Contact nadine@wclc.org.nz | (04) 568 0174.

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