News Item

May 2011

A preliminary study on civil case progression times in NZ

Due to the increasing concern that cases take too long to progress through the court system and that litigants are becoming increasingly frustrated with these delays, researchers at the Otago University Law Faculty conducted a preliminary investigation on the speed of resolution of civil cases in New Zealand.

The project had four aims:

  • Investigate research conducted in New Zealand and overseas
  • Collate publically available information on civil case progression
  • Gather further data from the Ministry of Justice on civil case resolution speed
  • Identify the nature of the problem and identify avenues for further research

Outcome of the project

As a result of the research, it was found there was a dearth of New Zealand research in this area. Further, the publicly available information on civil cases (primarily the workload of the courts) does not provide a picture of how long cases take to progress through the system. As such the Ministry of Justice provided preliminary data measuring the time it takes for a subset of civil cases to progress through the system (those initiated by a statement or notice of claim) for the District and High Court, and cases resolved in the Disputes Tribunal since 2005.

The main empirical findings on case progression were:

  • The majority of cases in the High Court are resolved relatively quickly (84% of these types of cases last year were resolved in an average of 252 days); However, there is a subset of cases (those that proceed and are allocated hearing dates) that can take a considerable time to progress (an average of 608 days).
  • Similarly, in the District Court, most cases are resolved relatively quickly (99% of cases did proceed to the point of being allocated hearing dates last year and were resolved in an average of 307 days), with a small number of cases that proceeded to being allocated hearing dates taking some time to be resolved (an average of 589 days).
  • In the Disputes Tribunal cases are resolved fairly quickly, with cases last year taking an overall average of 82 days to be resolved.

Factors accounting for slow progression time: Drawing on international research and anecdotal reports and views of members of the New Zealand legal profession, the following factors were identified as contributing to delay in some cases:

  • Lack of judicial control over proceedings
  • Lack of management of judgment delivery times
  • Demand on limited court resources
  • Increase in case complexity
  • Lack of judicial specialisation
  • Discovery processes
  • Counsel behaviour
  • Local legal culture

Overall the project identified that the concerns about delays in the civil system voiced in the media, amongst members of the public, and members of the profession have some empirical support. While many cases appear to be resolved in a reasonable period of time, a subset of cases are slow to resolve. While several factors were identified as potential contributors to slow case progression, further in-depth research is required to fully establish the reasons for delay in some cases. Once these factors have been identified, reform efforts that target these particular factors can then be investigated.

The report was officially released at parliament on Friday the 15th of April. Professor Henaghan presented the main findings of the report, and the Attorney-General, Christopher Finlayson, presented his views on the research findings. The Attorney-General also stressed that we need to have a first-class civil justice system and stressed the need for further research into the factors responsible for slow case progression.

Principal Investigator: Professor Mark Henaghan, Faculty of Law, Otago University

Associate Investigators: Dr Saskia Righarts, Ms Rachel Laing, Faculty of Law, Otago University

The Foundation provided funding of $10,000 for this project.