Justice system buckling under backlogs with delays impacting both victims and defendants

Those working across every facet of our justice system say workloads are heavier than ever and major delays are impacting both victims and those facing charges.

It's a problem largely created by COVID lockdowns and restrictions but the backlog is being exacerbated by other issues too.

Thousands of people walk into courtrooms around the country every day. But since COVID struck those working in our courtrooms are buckling under the weight of backlogs.

"It's both sides, so victims and defendants are facing really unfair and prolonged delays," said Chris Macklin, convenor of the Law Society criminal law committee.

The Ministry of Justice said since March 2020 around 144,000 District Court events and 1495 High Court events were adjourned or rescheduled because of the pandemic. Sixty-eight percent of appearances couldn't go ahead during the first lockdown.

But by the time Omicron arrived at the start of last year that dropped to 5 percent - with the help of distancing, and virtual appearances.

Jury trials were the most difficult to complete because of the need to gather 12 members of the public.

The High Court has rescheduled 88 criminal trials since the pandemic began. Seventy of those have since been heard, while 18 haven't.

That backlog's delaying any new trials. Prosecutor Chris Macklin said victims in two of his cases have decided not to go ahead.

"One major factor for them is that it's just taken too long for them to get their trials to court, and they felt they wanted to move on, and they were sick of waiting for the justice process to conclude," he said.

Private victim advocate Ruth Money said many of the people she works with are struggling to stick with the process too.

"I'm out to 2024 for trial dates, and when I think about the fact that those survivors may have disclosed the harm in 2020 or earlier, it's so unfair people have to wait this long," she said.

It's not just victims being impacted but defendants too. Some are staying longer in prison on remand waiting for a court appearance than their final sentence time.

And those who're innocent are waiting longer to have their name cleared. Resources are tight within Corrections, Police and courts, and there are struggles to get legal aid representation too because of heavy caseloads.

Just having enough courtrooms to hear cases is an issue.

"Also the lawyers themselves struggling to get through all the work, the judges struggling to turn these things over and the court staff who are doing their level best to keep things running," Macklin said.

The Ministry of Justice is trialling ways to streamline some parts of the court process but they'll take time to work through.

"It's something that we are spending a lot of time and energy on right now to try and reduce the delays in our court system, you'll see that through a range of legislative measures as well as direct programmes like CPIP and other initiatives," Justice Minister Kiri Allan said.

The wheels of justice continue to turn but are carrying a heavier load than ever.