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NZ chief judges move to address concerns for lawyers’ wellbeing

The chief judges of both the High Court and District Court in New Zealand have taken the “unusual step” of writing to all judges and judicial officers in the country to alert them to issues surrounding the wellbeing of court advocates, pledging to work to address them.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 31 July 2023 The Bar
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In a letter to all judges and associate judges of the nation’s High Court and District Court – as well as acting warranted judges, community magistrates and judicial justices of the peace – Chief Judge of the High Court Justice Susan Thomas and Chief Judge of the District Court Heemi Taumaunu wrote that they have heard, via feedback from the New Zealand Law Society, that counsel across the country are “under immense workload pressure”, with many feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

“Counsel are, of course, fundamental to the effective operation of the courts, and their wellbeing is important to us. We were extremely concerned to hear of these issues,” Their Honours wrote.

Among the issues raised with the chief judges were: counsel in NZ feel they cannot meet client needs given workload demands, more time is needed to adapt to new processes and procedures, and judges need to consider the pressure on lawyers and allow sufficient time between trials.


Moreover, counsel report experiencing distress if they sense they have disappointed judges or the court, with some removing themselves from work, resulting in even more pressure on those who remain.

“There is a fragility and tiredness across society which is reflected in legal practitioners,” Judges Thomas and Taumaunu reflected in the letter.

The justice sector is operating under challenging circumstances, the judges continued, in light of workforce shortages, loss of experienced personnel, remuneration issues and the aftermath of the global pandemic.

“These systemic difficulties impact us all. While we continue to improve court processes, many of these issues are outside our control. What we can do is listen and respond to that which is in our control,” Their Honours proclaimed.

“All of us have a collective commitment to serve justice. We can only do so successfully if the members of our legal profession are healthy and productive.”

Open lines of communication between the bench and local bar remain critical, Judges Thomas and Taumaunu concluded, and Their Honours committed to continue working with professional leaders to address the issues flagged.

The president of the New Zealand Law Society, Frazer Barton, thanked Judges Thomas and Taumaunu for their communication with the broader judiciary.

“Many [counsel] are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and [are] worried about the impact of this on their clients,” he said.

“I am particularly concerned for the wellbeing of family and criminal lawyers, as there is a growing shortage of lawyers in these areas. The number of cases in the system has not reduced and cases are often taking longer, so fewer lawyers are juggling the same amount of work across the system.”

“To ensure the sustainability of the justice system, we need to convince junior lawyers that family and criminal work are attractive options,” he said.

Being at the coalface, Mr Barton went on, the judiciary “plays a crucial role in monitoring and being mindful of the impact on individuals who have heavy trial workloads, and we welcome further conversation and investigation into the issue”.