Monday, April 22, 2024

Safer courts law passes third reading

Legislation to support the safe operation of the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic has passed its third reading in Parliament.

The Bill is set to clarify and strengthen the powers of the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice to manage COVID-19 transmission risks in the courts.

“These changes are needed to enable courts and tribunals to function safely and ensure people can get their day in court. Courts and tribunals provide an essential service, so it’s vital that people can feel safe and be safe when accessing them,” said Justice Minister, Kris Faafoi.

All changes in the COVID-19 Response (Courts Safety) Legislation Bill are temporary and are linked to the COVID 19 Public Health Response Act being in force.

The proposed changes:

  • strengthen the existing ability of the judiciary and Ministry of Justice to set safety requirements which people must meet when entering the courts and some tribunals, and
  • enable the judiciary to set safety requirements for jury trials to respond to the COVID-19 risks which can arise as a result of the large number of people involved in jury trials and the length of time they may be in close proximity with each other.

“Even as we pass the peak of the current Omicron outbreak there is an ongoing need to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading in courts and tribunals,” the Minister said.

“The pandemic continues to evolve and the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice need to be able to respond to changing health risks.”

The Bill does not mandate specific safety requirements, and therefore is not affected by the recent changes in the COVID-19 settings, the Minister said.

When setting safety requirements, the judiciary and Ministry will take account of fair trial rights and public health advice.

“In developing this Bill, the government’s primary concern has been to maintain access to justice. The COVID-19 Response (Courts Safety) Legislation Bill supports the courts to continue to safely deliver justice, and contains protections for fundamental rights,” said Mr Faafoi.                            

He said people who are legally compelled to attend court, such as criminal defendants, will continue to be able to access the courts even if they do not meet safety requirements.

The legislation does not change the circumstances in which remote hearings may be used. Nor does it modify the safeguards that apply to such hearings.

The judiciary and Ministry of Justice are reviewing what safety requirements are needed; informed by health advice. The safety requirements will be included in judicial protocols that are available online on the Courts of New Zealand website.

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