Note from Chief Justice Winkelmann
Information current up to 11:59 pm, 27 April 2020
The Prime Minister has announced the alert level for COVID-19 in New Zealand is to rise to Level 4 - Eliminate on Wednesday 25 March at 11:59 pm. This effectively shuts down all but the provision of essential services. I acknowledge the concern amongst the public, court staff and legal practitioners regarding any requirement to travel to court for hearings or to attend to filing of documents. I also understand that the restrictions imposed by the level 4 alert make it difficult for parties and legal practitioners to conduct court proceedings.
However, courts are an essential service. New Zealand courts must continue to uphold the rule of law and to ensure that fair trial rights, the right to natural justice and rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act are upheld.
Only priority proceedings to be heard
The heads of bench have decided that only proceedings affecting the liberty of the individual or their personal safety and wellbeing, or proceedings that are time-critical, should be heard while we are at alert level 4.
Please refer to the protocols for each court for more assistance as to the nature of the proceedings which might meet these criteria.
Remote participation to be used predominantly
To the maximum extent possible, and to avoid the need for people to attend court in person, the courts will use remote participation to hear these matters. Remote participation may involve AVL (audio-visual link) where that is possible, telephone or email.
Court attendance may sometimes be required, safety is paramount
However, in the District Court, Family Court, High Court and Court of Appeal, in-person attendances may be required in some cases. Where court attendance is unavoidable, the safety of the public, court staff and members of the legal profession is paramount. Measures have been taken to achieve physical distance and to improve courthouse hygiene. The Ministry of Justice has posted designated hygiene officers to each court to ensure that the increased hygiene standards are maintained.
Public access to criminal courts tightened for safety reasons
As of 27 March, public access to criminal courts has been tightened for safety reasons.
On 26 March in contravention of the nationwide lockdown in place under COVID-19 Alert Level 4, a number of people attempted to enter courthouses as supporters of defendants.
To preserve public safety and give effect to the COVID-19 Alert Level 4, District Courts and the High Court have excluded members of the public whose attendance is not required for the business of the court that day.
Under s 197 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011, a court may exclude members of the public when necessary to avoid endangering the safety of any person present, to avoid undue disruptions to the conduct of proceedings, or to avoid prejudicing the maintenance of the law.
In the present state of emergency, it has been necessary to exercise this power.
The only people who may enter the District Court or High Court for criminal proceedings are those whose presence is required for the business of the court.
The court will remain open to accredited members of the media to ensure that the principles of open justice continue to be observed.
The following people are also permitted to enter the court: defendants, prosecutors, lawyers and officers of the court. All people attending court may be required to show identification.
Supporters of those whose appearance is required will be denied entry to courthouses unless they get permission in advance from the presiding Judge.
These requests cannot be made in person at the courthouse because all public counters are closed to the public, as are court precincts.
Instead, permission can be requested by telephoning the Ministry of Justice Contact Centre 0800 COURTS (0800 268 787).
If permission is given to attend as a supporter, a court security officer will allow that person entry to the courthouse.
For more detail see here.
Filing by email
Each court is requiring filing of court documents by email during the level 4 alert. Courts will not receive in-person filing of documents, though arrangements may need to be made to receive some without-notice applications in the Family Court. Courts will continue to receive filing by post for those who cannot access facilities to file by email, but due to hygiene requirements, processing of documents received by post may be significantly delayed. Again, please refer to the protocol for each court for more information as to what is required to file documents.
Filing fees may be waived
Courts will waive filing fees for documents filed during the level 4 alert to the extent they can do so under s 24 of the Epidemic Preparedness Act or pursuant to other relevant court rule or regulation.
I appreciate the commitment that the people who work to support the operation of the courts have shown over the last two weeks. Our frontline court staff and members of the legal profession have continued to serve the interests of justice. Their constructive approach to the necessary changes we have implemented, and will continue to implement, keeps the courts operating and ensures that justice is administered.
Regular updates will continue to be made to this website and to the Courts of New Zealand Twitter account @CourtsofNZ.