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Firm expectations, local solutions: Chief District Court Judge explains Te Ao Mārama framework

23 Feb 2024

| Author: Reweti Kohere

Local solutions lie at the heart of Te Ao Mārama, says Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu, who is encouraging lawyers to get involved in deciding what the landmark justice initiative will look like in their courthouse. But first, they must get up to speed on a recently released best-practice framework, containing what the chief judge describes as “firm expectations” about how New Zealand’s busiest court will operate under this long-awaited initiative, designed to enhance justice for all participants.

“There are some fairly important things that are in that framework that are setting standards of best practice, including those very firm expectations about how things are done in the mainstream, because we are well aware of the need to balance all of this,” Chief Judge Taumaunu (Ngāti Pōrou, Ngāti Konohi and Ngāi Tahu) tells LawNews. “When I say ‘balance’, there are really three factors at play: improving efficiency, increasing the quality of what we’re doing and also maintaining the well-being of everyone involved in the system. And that does take quite a lot of nuanced balance to be brought to bear on it.”

The judicially-led initiative incorporates the hallmarks of New Zealand’s specialist and therapeutic courts into the District Court’s family, youth and mainstream criminal work. Since it was announced two years ago, Te Ao Mārama has reached its latest milestone: the release of a framework of best-practice approaches outlining how lawyers, court staff, judicial officers, government agencies and local communities can help it grow locally to ensure defendants, victims and whānau “feel seen, heard, understood” as they participate in the court process.

Described as “ambitious but necessary”, the initiative won’t change the substance of the law or process protections. Yet it will call for “new behaviours, new information, new services and new processes”, Chief Judge Taumaunu says in the nearly 60-page document. Lawyers who appear in court will need to become familiar with what is expected as it outlines “clear, concrete guidance” on the direction of travel. And lawyers have a role to play “in each local court, to engage in discussion with each other, with the stakeholder network at that court, and if they have a stakeholder meeting with judges, to talk with them [about] what Te Ao Mārama looks like in their location”.

 

Readiness

With 58 courthouses covering the length and breadth of New Zealand, and dealing with nearly 200,000 cases a year, the District Court is the largest court in Australasia. Chief Judge Taumaunu is aware of the court’s varying size, scale and the nature of its work. “If you take, say, Auckland District Court and compare it with a court like Tīmaru, you will immediately see that what might be relevant to Tīmaru may or may not be relevant to Auckland in the way this framework is structured,” he says. “Some of the types of lists that are in the framework may be relevant to Auckland, but may not be relevant to Tīmaru. It really does depend on the location we’re talking about.”

Te Ao Mārama is already set up in Hamilton, Gisborne and Kaitāia, while five other locations are somewhere in the pipeline. While no further detail has yet been announced, the “readiness” of the judges, communities and the wider justice sector in those five courthouses defines their selection, says Chief Judge Taumaunu. “That’s not to say other courts and other locations aren’t ready. It’s just saying that we know the ones we’re engaging with at the moment have been assessed as ready for us to be engaging [with] – and we are engaging with them.”

Feedback from the profession has been “very positive and very supportive”, the chief judge says, with lawyers working in the specialist courts asking him how they can ensure the initiative succeeds. He does acknowledge that improvement is inevitable. “You can’t change something without reviewing it and constantly improving it. The biggest issues are going to be that this is something new – and anything new will always have a fair degree of challenge involved in it.”

Building capacity in communities where it doesn’t exist will be challenging. Under Te Ao Mārama, a local court’s close connection to the community it serves will be enhanced, with judicial officers having the opportunity to welcome relevant community-based organisations and service providers into the courtroom to provide knowledge, information and social services and support.

Chief Judge Taumaunu says the Gisborne and Kaitāia District Courts are “proving to be quite transformative” in this regard. He’s impressed with the community efforts in those areas, and encourages others to follow suit. “That’s challenging because it draws on community resources, on the energy of the people who are involved in providing these services. It just has to be done in a realistic way that maintains everyone’s well-being because you can obviously burn out doing this. It’s going to have to be done carefully.”

 

Plain language

While only a few courthouses have launched Te Ao Mārama, the initiative has gone nationwide, Chief Judge Taumaunu says. “If you look at the framework, you’ll see there are numerous Te Ao Mārama best-practice approaches that can be developed immediately. If you think about some of them, they probably are developed already in many of the locations. Using plain language – I know that’s actually much more prevalent now than it was before.”

Under Te Ao Mārama, plain language will be used so participants can comprehend each stage of the court process as it occurs. Alternative communication formats, such as braille and New Zealand sign language videos, should also be provided if available. Moreover, a consistent approach to toned-down formalities may be implemented by each court. The framework document acknowledges that while the mana and solemnity of the court must be maintained, formalities can get in the way of effective participation.

“There’s power in simply stating at a very high level, ‘this is the expectation’,” says Chief Judge Taumaunu, who is “fairly confident” a shift toward easy-to-understand proceedings has occurred in the past two years. “That’s a good thing because it’s an important part of all of this. The idea that people can actually understand what’s being said and leave court knowing what the reasons were for the decision or understanding what they were. [These are] very important things in terms of people feeling they’ve had a fair hearing and have sought and received justice.”

 

Process and outcome

Appointed in 2019 as the first Māori Chief District Court Judge, Taumaunu sat in Whangārei before working at Waitākere, then Auckland Central. He was also a pioneer of Ngā Kōti Rangatahi o Aotearoa, the Rangatahi courts, having developed the first one in Gisborne in 2008. Operating in the same way as the Youth Court, but held on marae and following Māori cultural processes, the Rangatahi courts are designed to help young Māori engage in the youth justice process. The Pasifika courts operate similarly.

In his experience on the bench, Chief Judge Taumaunu observed that many people were just as interested in the fairness of the process, if not more so, as they have been in the result. “The outcome can actually be the same, if you think about it. But the difference in many cases is actually how they’ve been treated when they’ve come to court. That does come down a lot to the process that’s been used. Has plain language been used? Have they felt comfortable enough to present the best version of themselves when they come to court?” he says.

“A lot of this won’t require much – except it does because changes of behaviour, culture changes, they do take some direction from the top and then commitment and energy to actually do it at the front line. I’m encouraged, because I think people are following this message and have bought into it and gradually changing the behaviour in the courtrooms.”

In safeguarding fair trial rights under Te Ao Mārama, the court is also tasked with delivering “timely justice” and ensuring all participants in the court system are well enough to deliver both. “You can’t really have a workforce trying to reduce delay in the court unless they’re feeling healthy and vibrant and motivated and energetic,” Chief Judge Taumaunu says. “There’s something of a matrix here – it all has to be seen together because it can’t really operate in isolation.” Changing behaviours won’t prolong the court’s current backlog, “but it will certainly improve quality”, as will other approaches in the framework such as judicial monitoring of adult criminal cases. The chief judge says the framework has been designed to “bring a sense of discipline” to this kind of work. “It hasn’t been there before.”

 

Criminal justice highway

The focus of Te Ao Mārama is the court’s family and youth jurisdictions, with attention also given to adult criminal matters. This emphasis has been deliberate, the chief judge says, pointing to a problem described as the “criminal justice highway”.

“There’s a clear link between the young people who find themselves as children in state care, those who’ve been exposed to family violence when they were children and those who then graduate into the youth justice system. The likelihood of them becoming engaged in the criminal justice system is 15 times more likely. The likelihood of those same people, who followed that pathway, ending up in prison is 107 times more likely before they turn 21,” Chief Judge Taumaunu says.

Under this statistical picture, many children will be trapped there. Where is the best point in the system to help? the chief judge asks. “The Family Court is where this really needs to start. Then the Youth court, then the adult criminal court, and in that order, for a specific reason,” he says.

And the reason? To provide an off-ramp from the criminal justice highway. “Those alternative pathways are really where the framework talks about inviting the strength of the community into the courtroom. Judges who are working in a solution-focused way, especially in those courts, are really keenly aware and so are all the other court participants – the lawyers will know this as well – that the solutions aren’t in the court. They have to be found in the community,” Chief Judge Taumaunu says. “And it goes back to that point about capacity-building. Sometimes these connections with the community in the court have to be built.” ■

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