Editorial: No grounds for knee-jerk law change

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The Supreme Court ruled that police exceeded legal authority in their filming of training camps in the Ureweras. Tame Iti, above, is one of those still facing charges. Photo / Alan Gibson
The Supreme Court ruled that police exceeded legal authority in their filming of training camps in the Ureweras. Tame Iti, above, is one of those still facing charges. Photo / Alan Gibson

There is more than a hint of overreaction in the Government's response to the Supreme Court Urewera ruling that rendered unlawful almost all police secret filming on private property.

Only an exceedingly strong argument could justify taking the step of temporarily suspending the effect of the judgment through an urgent law change. The Government has failed to supply this. Indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that little practical harm would be done if the ruling were allowed to stand until the next Parliament passes new search and surveillance legislation.

John Key said the Crown Law Office had suggested up to 40 pending trials could be affected by the Supreme Court decision, as well as more than 50 police operations.

"We, therefore, have the immediate and pressing concern that police are currently left in a position where they are unable to investigate some serious criminal proceeding," he said.

That is a misreading of the judgment.

The Supreme Court's view that the police exceeded their legal authority in secretly filming alleged quasi-military training camps on private land in the Ureweras in 2007 did lead to firearms charges against 13 of the accused being dropped. But the court also ruled that the evidence, although unlawfully obtained, could be used against four others of the accused, including Tame Iti, because their alleged crimes were more serious and the evidence could not be gained any other way.

That means those charged with serious crimes will not be able to use the Supreme Court ruling to their advantage. Equally, the police can continue to use covert surveillance if the offending under investigation is serious.

They should not be suspending the use of video surveillance in major operations. And there should not, as Mr Key suggests, be instances of 'some very, very serious criminals" escaping justice if the Government cannot gain the numbers to rush the legislation through Parliament. In terms of the trials cited by the Prime Minister, it also seems unlikely that hearings for lesser offences will be initiated or completed in large numbers before the Search and Surveillance Bill is passed.

The Government's action is the more puzzling in that it should never have come to this. Several years ago, the Law Commission warned of problems with the covert surveillance law. The police carried on regardless.

If that now seems reckless, they have good reason to be critical of Parliament. As the Police Association suggests, secret filming is now central to much police work as a means of keeping up with increasingly sophisticated offending.

The new search and surveillance bill, which has been on Parliament's books for two years, acknowledges this by providing for secret filming on private property in serious cases, including arms offences.

But the Government has been in no hurry to pass it, a fact criticised in the Supreme Court judgment. Now, with only two sitting weeks before the general election, time has run out.

If the Government wishes to rush its urgent short-term law through Parliament next week, it needs the Labour Party to agree. However, its leader, Phil Goff, points to the perils inherent in legislation that would apply retrospectively, so filmed evidence already collected could be used. He wants this new bill to go to a select committee. That is the right course.

In that forum, the Government's case for urgency would be put under appropriate scrutiny. This would surely conclude that, in the context of sound parliamentary practice and the Supreme Court ruling, this legislation is inappropriate and probably unnecessary.

- NZ Herald

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