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Criminal record may soon be a click away

Published: 6:55AM Sunday August 11, 2013 Source: Fairfax

Finding out someone's criminal history could soon be as easy as clicking a button, under major changes to improve public access to court documents.

Justice Minister Judith Collins told the Sunday Star-Times the current system, where people often have to apply in writing to the courts for access to information, is "completely insane".

She wants all decisions online once the courts have completed a move to an electronic operating model next year. The documents would effectively act as a public register of criminals and improve public safety, she said.

It would also make the court process more open.

"If a matter is heard in open court that anyone can attend, why is it the next day they strangely can't access that information? People have a right to know about what goes on in their courts."

Ms Collins' proposal is her latest bid to improve information sharing about criminals since the murder of Christchurch schoolgirl Jade Bayliss.

Her mother, Tina Bayliss, who wasn't aware her daughter's murderer had already killed, believes it is a "fantastic idea".

Ms Collins accepts some groups will "scream and cry" about the plan, but believes there is overwhelming public interest in making the information available.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said work on Ms Collins' proposal had begun, but it was early days.

"It is a complex piece of work and we are currently looking at what IT is needed to support it. We also need to develop a robust system to remove suppressed information from judgments before they are published."

Court of Appeal and nearly all Supreme Court and High Court decisions since 2005 are published online. The public can apply in writing to receive a copy of a District Court judgment. However, a lot of criminal decisions are recorded, but not transcribed unless they are needed for official purposes, largely because of a lack of resources.

Ms Collins has an ally in Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue who believes it is important the public understand the reasoning behind court decisions.

"We welcome any development which would enable the decisions of the District Court to be available in a timely fashion," Doogue said.

"This would enable transparency and accountability."

Media Freedom committee member Clive Lind said Ms Collins' plan would be a great way of getting information about court proceedings into the public domain. "What we do at the moment doesn't make sense with today's technology."

The Sensible Sentencing Trust is also excited about the changes, which it believes are long overdue. It was often a battle for victims to get hold of information, spokeswoman Ruth Money said.

Jade Bayliss's murder sparked calls for better information sharing between Australian and New Zealand authorities about serious criminals deported between the two countries.

Earlier this year, Fairfax Media revealed Tina Bayliss had approached police with concerns about Jeremy McLaughlin's behaviour four days before he strangled her 13-year-old daughter in November 2011. She didn't know he had previously killed a teenager in Australia. Police were unable to tell her because of constraints on what they can reveal about a person's criminal history.

Ms Collins believes trans-Tasman information sharing about deported criminals is not good enough and has discussed her plans with Australian Justice Minister Jason Clare.

Australian officials accept the situation is difficult and will look at changes to legislation to free up the flow of information.

At present, New Zealand police are told only that an offender is being deported from Australia, but they are not told of any criminal convictions. If they want those details, they have to request it through Interpol.

Ms Collins has also proposed changes that would see information about deported criminals made available on request to the public, or through an open register of serious offenders.