Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

Problem with letting off drink drivers dismissed

The Ministry of Justice could not give the names of the judges who granted the discharges, or the reasons. Photo / File
The Ministry of Justice could not give the names of the judges who granted the discharges, or the reasons. Photo / File

Senior legal figures do not believe there is a problem with the number of drink-drivers before the courts who receive a discharge without conviction.

Figures released to the New Zealand Herald show 239 offenders have escaped conviction since 2007.

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue said by law, judges must impose the least restrictive sentence when using their discretion in sentencing.

A discharge without conviction was the appropriate sentence when the consequences of a conviction far outweighed the culpability of the offender's actions, she said.

But even if a person was discharged, that did not necessarily mean they would escape punishment.

"They might also be required by the judge to undertake rehabilitation, pay reparation to the victim, or the judge may order order the restitution of any property involved," Judge Doogue said.

Law Society president Jonathan Temm said only a small number of people were let off drink driving charges.

"Less than 0.2 per cent of cases fall into this category ... that's because the threshold test is quite high."

Mr Temm said he understood anti drink-driving groups being concerned with any discretion but cautioned people against having an "absolutely emphatic, no discretion rule".

"Because if you do that, then you are going to create injustice."

Mr Temm said judges had to take into account circumstances for first-time offenders with an adequate explanation they could prove.

If the breath or blood alcohol level was on the cusp of the legal limit, discretion might be offered.

Auckland lawyer Stuart Blake, who specialises in drink-driving and traffic law, told the Herald he obtained this month a discharge for a trainee pilot whose student debt exceeded $100,000 and who considered a conviction would prevent him getting a job to repay it.

In another case, a West Auckland man was discharged because his business interests required "extensive unimpeded international travel", and a woman was discharged because she was an international model with job prospects in Hong Kong, America and Canada.

Students Against Drink Driving chief Anna Braidwood said such cases sent the wrong message, particularly to young people, who were constantly being grilled about getting behind the wheel drunk.

The discharges are different from those given to motorists who beat the system through legal loopholes or errors in police cases. The majority were granted in Wellington, followed by Manukau, Auckland, Christchurch and the North Shore.

The Ministry of Justice could not give the names of the judges who granted the discharges, or the reasons.

- APNZ

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