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May 3, 2021

Attorney General proposes radical reform to support access to justice

Since 2019, the Rules Committee has been consulting on ways to improve access to civil justice by reducing the cost of bringing a civil claim to court. Measures proposed have included greater reliance on documentary evidence (versus oral evidence) and presumptively conducting all trials via a short form model.

The Attorney-General, at the Rules Committee meeting of 20 November 2020, considered that the existing proposals did not go far enough. Instead, he supported “radical reform” in the District Court, even if only on an experimental basis. He voiced support for empowering District Court Judges to adopt an inquisitorial approach to cases (such talking directly to witnesses and directing what witnesses they wished to hear, rather than relying on counsel as intermediaries), and suggested that this could serve as an experimental pilot in the District Court in the near future.

These suggestions are surprising in the context of a relatively moderate and unhurried consultation. If the Attorney General’s proposal is adopted, it would dramatically change the way civil cases are conducted in New Zealand. Close attention should be paid to whether the Attorney-General’s sentiments are a sign of increasing political will (and increasing funding) to reform civil justice system.

The Attorney-General acknowledged the possibility that there was more detail in the papers that he had reviewed but said that the current proposals still seem insufficiently radical.