Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: 82,00 court adjournments, rape complainant says delay has completely derailed me

An alleged rape victim says a wait of up to 15 months until her trial begins is derailing her life as new figures show Covid-19 has caused more than 80,000 court adjournments during the past six months.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed 82,670 court events were adjourned or rescheduled in the country’s district courts due to Covid-19 restrictions. That includes 630 jury trials, between August 18, 2021 and February 13, 2022.

The figure has nearly doubled since between mid-October and February when more than 44,000 High and District Court proceedings had been adjourned.

A Ministry spokesperson said that figure did include adjournments of the same cases and covered all jurisdictions – including criminal, family and civil – along with the Disputes Tribunal.

The ongoing delays are having a real impact on everyone involved – especially the victims – and Criminal Bar Association president Fiona Guy Kidd QC predicted it would take years to clear the case backlog.

The woman at the centre of a Rotorua rape trial says the delays in seeing her case progress have caused so much stress that she has considered taking her own life.

The man accused of raping her was arrested in 2021 but the case won’t be heard now until the middle of 2023.

“It’s really, really stressful and I think even just the delay from the incident to when he was charged was well over a year which was crazy.

“I’m just so flabbergasted, and it feels like I can’t move on until it’s done.

“It’s just that my mental health has really suffered.”

The woman said she was shocked at the length of not only her delay but all cases being put off.

“It’s just completely derailed me.

“You feel like you can’t move on with your life, knowing that he’s there … it’s destroyed friendships.

“It’s absolutely affected my whole life.”

A Ministry spokesperson said there were 135 cases awaiting a jury trial in the Rotorua District Court, and a further 117 cases waiting on a judge-alone trial.

Independent victims advocate Ruth Money earlier told the Herald the delays were leaving victims in a “no man’s land”.

With the backlog growing by the day, Money believed some cases would inevitably be dropped.

“Some of the survivors are saying, ‘Nope, I’m not going to do this again, I’m not going to wait’,” she said.

Trials began kicking off in the district courts from January 31, however in some locations, including Hamilton, Tauranga, and Rotorua, those scheduled for that week were further adjourned due to a variety of issues and briefly got underway until two murder trials were adjourned for late this month.

A spokesperson for the Chief District Court Judge’s Chambers told the Herald that jury trials were now “generally operating well with some minor operational issues that were to be expected for a change of this magnitude”.

Herald sources said there were initial concerns about packing a jury into a small courtroom, with one likening it to a “petri dish” of infection, however many counsel were just pleased to get their trials underway.

The spokesperson said the district courts were “committed to minimising the risk of transmission of Covid-19 in court buildings”.

“All courts are following health and safety guidelines as issued by the Ministry of Health.and have put in place a number of measures to safeguard the health and safety of those in court buildings.

“Courts have been looking at extra distancing in place as far as practicable for jurors, including plans to deliberate in the jury assembly room and the court room itself.”

Defendants turning up to court who were unvaccinated were now given the option to get a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) at a nearby clinic so they can attend their hearing, while the Herald understands other measures – including setting up a separate AVL suite in court buildings for unvaccinated defendants – is also underway.

With Omicron cases spiking Guy Kidd, from the Criminal Bar Association, said she wanted to see RAT testing being “undertaken daily by all jury trial participants including judges, court staff, jurors and lawyers to ensure safety”.

“It may be that in some locations at some stages over the next month or two we may need to pause the operation of jury trials for a time.”

She added that criminal lawyers “dug deep to address jury trial backlogs after the first lockdown in 2020, however some are now burning out”.

“The numbers of lawyers doing legal aid are reducing as it is uneconomical and anxiety due to the risk of contracting covid-19 is present.

“So as we push on to clear backlogs we need to be mindful of the health and welfare of all involved and on whom the criminal justice system depends to operate.”

She hoped an increase in legal aid rates would be addressed in the Government’s budget, as they had not been raised since 2009.

“If not an ever-dwindling number of lawyers will be left to carry an even heavier workload to address the backlog in courts.”

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