NEW ZEALAND’S Supreme Court judges appear to have too little to do and are frustrated at their light workload.
Almost two years after the Court’s first sitting, its five judges, regarded as the high priests of the legal profession, have yet to tackle a full workload.
In the past 17 months, the Court has delivered only 17 substantive judgments, many of which are not more than 30 paragraphs.
The Court replaced the Privy Council as New Zealand’s final appellate court in October 2004.
Ironically, New Zealand’s next-highest court, the Court of Appeal, with eight judges, is snowed under with cases.
One of New Zealand’s top lawyers, who asked not to be named, said he knew the Supreme Court judges would prefer to have more to do.
“It probably frustrates the hell out of them. These are people who have spent their whole working lives overcommitted and under stress. Now, probably the most stressful thing is that they are not sitting on many days,” he said.
“But it’s almost a vote of confidence in the court below because the Supreme Court is refusing leave (to appeal) except in very important cases. It looks like it’s not doing very much, but structurally it’s doing the right thing.”
Former ACT MP Steven Franks, who opposed setting up the Supreme Court, said he had heard “mutterings” from the Court of Appeal about its workload compared with the higher court.
A prominent Christchurch lawyer said he was aware of the frustration felt by Supreme Court judges about their workload, “but for all that, the amount of work is increasing”.
“You don’t want to be judging too soon. It’s better those frustrations than being too busy and not doing it well enough,” he said.
The workload issue rears its head at a time when the Government has approved a purpose-built Supreme Court as a symbol of national identity.
No exact costs for the building have been mentioned, but it is believed the Government expects to get little change from $40 million. The court has an operational budget of about $2.1 million.
Last year, Chief Justice Sian Elias, who was not available for comment yesterday, balked at resources for her court and criticised a proposal to convert the old High Court building in Wellington into the Supreme Court. She took issue with the proposed layout, room sizes and security.
The Supreme Court delivered 10 substantive judgments that involved 28 days of hearings, last year. So far this year it has issued seven major decisions involving nine days of hearings.
The Australian High Court, with seven judges, issued about 70 decisions last year, and Britain’s top court, the House of Lords, with 12 judges, delivered about 80.
The Court of Appeal dealt with 477 criminal cases, 125 civil criminal appeals and 140 miscellaneous motions last year.
Justice Ministry figures showed the Supreme Court has an annual budget of about $2.1 million. It has five full-time administrative staff, a registrar, two case officers, a research librarian and a part-time library assistant. Each judge has a law clerk and a personal secretary.
The Chief Justice is paid $335,000 a year and her fellow Supreme Court judges are paid $313,000. Their notable decisions so far include rulings on the Ahmed Zaoui case and ACT’s expulsion of MP Donna Awatere Huata.
Franks, who is now a law consultant, said the Privy Council had averaged about 11 cases a year and “we would have expected our court to be under-utilised. It’s a bit like Nauru buying a Boeing 737”.
“While it may seem they are twiddling their thumbs and is a waste of resource, it’s actually quite a good sign we haven’t suddenly decided to waste our money appealing things a lot higher.”
The Supreme Court’s workload had not built up as quickly as it would have if the Court of Appeal had not been bogged down with cases, he said.
Professor John Burrows, a Canterbury University law lecturer and barrister, said the Supreme Court was still in its early stages.
“The numbers do not suggest a large workload, but it does suggest they have got time to reflect on their decisions — time the lower courts don’t have,” he said. “It could be a greater workload, but that will come as the judgments start to come in.”
Reproduced with permission of The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.