Editorial: Justice should be calm and dispassionate

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Many will sympathise with the father of Sophie Elliott when he complains that his victim-impact statement was censored by the judge at the sentencing of Clayton Weatherston. After the frightful murder of their daughter the Elliotts had to endure an 18-month wait for her killer's trial, a preliminary hearing that reopened their wounds and a trial that forced them to sit silently for a month while Weatherston added insult to their injury.

After all of that time, the court curtailed Gil Elliot's single opportunity to express his family's anger. His carefully prepared statement was submitted to Justice Judith Potter who put a line through sections she believed she did not need to hear.

Was that fair?

The answer probably depends on the kind of justice being dispensed and the purpose of this very recent addition to criminal sentencing hearings, the victim's statement. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias made an observation on these issues in a speech in July. Our system of criminal justice, she pointed out, was designed to replace private vengeance with public prosecution and impartial decisions. The modern focus on victims, she said, carried a risk to public ownership of justice and its detachment. "Courtrooms now can be very angry places," she said. She has a point. Courts do not exist for the catharsis of crime's victims.

There ought to be other services adequately funded for that. Courts are where we hope to find justice, a word which does not simply mean vengeance as victim support groups seem to believe.

Mr Elliott was allowed to read all the passages of his statement that described his family's loss and suffering. He was not allowed to rage at Weatherston nor, in his words, "have a crack at him". Nor was he allowed to read passages he had written contesting some of Weatherston's claims at the trial.

The judge's rulings stand to reason. No purpose is served by contesting claims a jury has already implicitly disbelieved. Nor is anything to be gained by allowing victims to direct invective at the person in the dock awaiting sentence. It is unseemly in a courtroom and likely to be demeaning for all concerned. The more personally insulting it becomes the less that offenders are likely to be moved by it.

It is infinitely better that the judge expresses the outrage and disgust the crime deserves, a task judges usually do with far more verbal skill and the moral authority of their impartial position. It is part of their responsibility to represent society's sympathy for the victim and their sentencing comments should leave the victim in no doubt of it.

There are different systems of justice that bring offenders and victims face-to-face at an earlier stage and encourage them to maintain some contact for purposes of reconciliation. That is probably not a system most victims in this country would prefer. Quite likely they did not choose to meet the offender when the crime was committed and want nothing more to do with the person.

Victim's impact statements are an attempt to graft some inter-personal justice on to a system that is designed for quite the opposite - to take criminal matters out of personal negotiation and recognise that they are an offence to non-negotiable standards of behaviour.

The graft is an awkward one and can be undignified, particularly now that the trials are televised. The public face of justice is becoming one of emotion rather than carefully considered conclusions. Victims deserve all the sympathy they need and they will find no shortage of it when they express their anguish and anger outside the court. But inside it, calm, dispassionate justice must be done.

- NZ Herald

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