Referring to disgraced former police assistant commissioner Clint Rickards' application for admission to the bar, National Party leader John Key observed that "I wouldn't want him as my lawyer". Many people, especially women, would doubtless agree. But that is no reason to deny Mr Rickards the right to practise as a barrister and solicitor. Having completed a law degree at the University of Auckland, he should be able to place his legal skills in the marketplace, and take a chance on attracting clients.
Approval for this lies with the Auckland District Law Society, to which Mr Rickards has applied for a character approval certificate. The society says public opinion, which is strongly against his admission, would not influence its decision, "but the facts that give rise to that public opinion might". Those facts include, obviously, the rape complaint brought against Mr Rickards by Louise Nicholas, which ended in his acquittal last year, and his subsequent resignation from the police. The latter step was taken as a police disciplinary inquiry loomed.
Clearly, Mr Rickards could not continue in the police. New Zealanders, quite rightly, expect officers to possess high standards of integrity, fairness and morality. His personal qualities, most notably his sexual conduct towards a vulnerable teenager, fell far short of those demanded of a high-ranking policeman. Yet he presented the police hierarchy with a thorny problem. He had not been found guilty of anything, and disciplinary proceedings would have had to focus on his repeated criticisms of the police investigation into Louise Nicholas' complaint.
Mr Rickards has conceded that what he did was morally wrong, a realisation that, presumably, persuaded him finally that he had no future in the police. The delay in his resignation, and his wretched insistence that the conduct was consensual, raise obvious questions. But at no time have there been queries about his honesty. More important still, the standards expected of a police officer and a barrister or solicitor are not one and the same. A lesser standard applies to lawyers, if only because people choose them but have no choice over the police officer assigned to their case.
There was evidence of this last year when Eb Leary, who was struck off in 1987 for misconduct when he was representing the Mr Asia drug syndicate kingpin, Terry Clark, was given permission to practise again. Lawyers, like bankrupted businesspeople, are not considered beyond redemption. It is expected that lessons will have been learned and they will demonstrate greater judgment and proficiency the next time around. No such second chance would ever be granted a police officer.
In Mr Rickards' case, any granting of a certificate of good character by the Auckland District Law Society would be done in the knowledge that he had erred in his previous profession. He would surely be aware that the Law Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal would not cut him slack if he was found guilty of misconduct. That, in itself, would be a strong incentive to stay on the straight and narrow.
Mr Rickards' past behaviour persuades many that he should be denied admission to the bar. Public submissions to the Auckland District Law Society will be weighted heavily against him. But the society's focus must be on any grounds that could lead it to deny permission to practise. If this is the case, it will surely conclude that Mr Rickards' application should be approved.
His success, or failure, will then rest, as it should, on his ability as a lawyer and the willingness of members of the public to engage him.