Simon Power yesterday introduced a shiny new “Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill” to Parliament. The Nats are touting it as “the biggest change to the criminal justice system in 50 years”. Most reaction so far has been lazily positive, repeating points from the press release. Here’s one typical example:
Changes to the justice system will mean 43,000 less court events every year, less cases going to trial and more flexibility with juries, according to the government. Parliament has today signed off on a justice bill that will bring in some of the most significant changes to court procedures in decades. Justice Minister Simon Power said the 526-page Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill is the biggest shakeup of the criminal justice system in 50 years.
“It is unacceptable that there are thousands of unnecessary court appearances each year, and that it takes an average of 16 months to complete a jury trial in the High Court and 12 months in the District Court,” he said. The bill will force the defence to identify and disclose any issues before a trial and will allow the court to proceed without a defendant, if the defendant does not have a reasonable excuse for being absent. …
Guilty pleas will be encouraged as early as possible, and out of court discussions between parties will be promoted to ensure there are fewer adjournments and shorter hearings. Only the most serious and complex cases will got to trial.
Power said the changes have the potential to save $24 million over five years and free up 16,000 court sitting hours each year.
Sounds good eh? There certainly is a problem with overloaded courts. A little nip here, a tuck there, an voila, much more efficient. But hang on a minute – what are we nipping and tucking? I have seen only one report that critically examines the issue:
Rights to jury trial to be restricted
Justice Minister Simon Power today introduced a bill which he says proposes the biggest changes to the criminal justice system in 50 years. Among the most drastic changes under the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill are reserving a jury trial to only the most serious cases – which carry a minimum of three years imprisonment. …
High profile barrister Barry Hart says the bill is a direct attack on people’s basic rights.
“It is unduly restrictive. Another example, month by month, we seem to be losing rights of the basic individual,” he says. Mr Hart agrees the criminal justice system needs a revamp but says the new bill fails to address the real crux of the issue.
“There’s no two ways about it there needs to be a speedy trial process, but here for reasons I can never understand, we have no priority system for people in custody.”
The barrister also slams the idea of a trial proceeding without a defendant. “[It’s] completely wrong in principle, I’ll always be against that process. If you have a trial in the absence of an accused it’s not really a trial is it.”
Trial by a “jury of our peers” is a one of our fundamental legal rights — should we be so quick to abandon it? The origins of habeas corpus are even older (back to the twelfth century) — what kind of trial is it without the defendant present? And what other devils are lurking in the details?
I await the reaction of the legal community with great interest (calling Andrew Geddis!). But for now I share the concerns of Barry Hart — it looks like the Nats are engaged in yet another attack on our fundamental rights.
Update: Further concerns expressed.