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May 5, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Court Report: Status Hearings

Status hearings are the first step in a defendant’s journey through court. The judge briefly discusses their case with the counsel for both the Crown and the accused. If they plead guilty, the matter can often be resolved right there; if either counsel requires more time to look over evidence, or if the defendant doesn’t show, another status hearing date will be set; if they plead not guilty, a defended hearing date (where witnesses are called) will be set.

From 10am until 11:30am last Tuesday, I watched a judge go through 28 status hearings in Court Room 2. No witnesses were called, and none of the defendants were asked to speak. Nine of them didn’t even turn up; of these nine, two provided legitimate excuses: one was at a doctor’s appointment but promised to turn up later in the week (although she had already missed one status hearing due to illness), while another couldn’t turn up because he was in the cells, having been arrested again the previous night. Another waited in the hallway because he came under the Mental Health Act 1992 and being in Court stressed him out. Of the remaining six, the prosecution asked for warrants to arrest two who had missed another status hearing previously. In two separate instances, teenaged males turned up to their hearings only to inform the judge that their lawyers were absent or busy, and their hearings had to be delayed for half an hour while the duty solicitor learned their case.

Even taking into account the nine non-appearances, getting through 28 status hearings in an hour and a half means most were very brief, and the nature of the charges was not even read out in some cases. Six defendants could not yet enter a plea as their counsel was still seeking disclosure of some evidence from the Crown or city council; their next status hearings were set for 10 June. One young white male gangsta charged with trespass, assault and disorderly behaviour, for whom the duty solicitor asked for time to await disclosures, was told by the Crown that his information had been disclosed to lawyer X, whom they had seen earlier in the corridor; the defendant replied “he was my lawyer, like before on other stuff.” He was the only defendant I heard speak that day.

Another six defendants pleaded not guilty, and their defended hearings were all set for 10 June. One defendant, a middleaged Greek businessman, disputed his drunk-driving charge, claiming he never drove that night, but both he and the police had witnesses backing up their side. Another defendant, a Thai woman charged with assaulting her de facto husband after a wedding, acknowledged the assault had taken place but claimed it was in self-defence. She was informed that although this was her first offence, diversion would not be an option because it was a domestic violence offence. However, another defendant, a white male charged with intimidation, threat to do grievous bodily harm and possession of a dangerous weapon, was also told diversion would not normally be an option since the charges related to domestic violence, but his lawyer noted he had a good job and requested discharge without conviction; the case will be heard in June.

Only two defendants pleaded guilty and had their cases resolved then and there. One simply received a diversion for an unnamed charge. The second was a big bearded Maori man, who was charged with offering to sell cannabis to a young man on Courtenay Place; when the young man opened his foil, he found it contained nothing but tin foil. The police found him to be in possession of six empty foils and some twenty-dollar notes. His counsel sought sentencing advice from judge, based on his previous history. He had just secured employment at a freezing works after being on the dole, so he wanted the matter dealt with that day, by way of conviction and a fine, to avoid a defended hearing. The Judge noted with some displeasure that the defendant had only just entered his guilty plea during the hearing, but nevertheless agreed to convict him with a fine of $450 plus $130 court costs.

Of the remaining cases, one defendant, a Polynesian male dressed in overalls with a ponytail, wished to plead guilty, but ethical considerations stood in the way of his counsel proceeding straight to a defended hearing. The defendant was charged with drinkdriving after his car had hit someone, and the police said he’d switched seats with a female passenger after the crash to escape blame. His counsel argued that he had switched seats, but had switched into the driver’s seat in a “naively macho” attempt to take the blame, and noted that the police’s only witness was that female passenger. The defence said they were confident they could get an affidavit from her confirming their story, but sought a delay and another status hearing because they were concerned that such an affidavit, contradicting her earlier statement, would put her in contempt of court – and of course she could no longer be breathtested.

Once again I was struck by how confusing this process was for many of the defendants. A guy I went to high school with told me that when he went to Court to face a charge, his courtappointed lawyer was supposed to discuss his case with him for the standard 15 minutes. However, because duty solicitors are always overburdened with cases, the lawyer simply came and talked to him for a couple of minutes as he took a leak in the urinal. Similarly, two of the defendants I saw in court had lost their lawyers. Another had to be asked to take his hat off, and another forgot to turn his cellphone off. Their status hearings go by in mere minutes, the judge almost never asks them to speak, and in most cases their charges are hardly discussed.

On top of all these problems facing defendants is the fact that punishments are not consistent throughout New Zealand. I ran into a lawyer outside the courtroom, who told me that whereas in Palmerston North and Levin a defendant will invariably be jailed on their third drink-driving offence, Wellington and Porirua are more lenient, and Auckland more lenient still (as Aucklanders all drive long distances across town). He recalled one case in which he defended a client in Levin who was in jail on remand for his third offence, expecting jail. But an Auckland judge had been sent down for the day, and she simply asked that he do community service. When the registrar asked her what bail would be set at, she was shocked to find he was being held in custody.

Given such inconsistencies, one could argue that defendants are all lost and victimised by the system. On the other hand, many defendants simply do not bother to turn up because they don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Certainly many of the defendants I saw were contemptuous of the whole process. In some cases this contempt may be justified by the confusion, but in other cases it may not. I guess in the end people will be people, and the courts, being the place where the mess is “sorted out”, are bound to be a bit messy themselves.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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