Bill would require judges to disclose financial interests

By Kate Shuttleworth

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A bill that will see judges required to publicly disclose their financial interests will be debated at select committee.

The Register of Pecuniary Interests of Judges Bill passed its first reading in Parliament tonight and will be debated in the Justice and Electoral select committee.

The bill received overwhelming support in Parliament - members across the party spectrum signalled their support for the idea after the resignation of former Supreme Court judge Bill Wilson in 2010.

It follows the resignation of Justice Wilson, whose conduct was investigated over claims he had not adequately disclosed his business relationship with a lawyer on a case he sat on.

He was found to have acted appropriately.

If the bill passed, judges would be required to make annual declarations which would be publicly available.

Green MP Kennedy Graham's member's bill to set up a register similar to that for MPs was drawn from the ballot box in 2010.

Dr Graham said it would create greater transparency within the judicial system and would avoid any conflict of interest in the judicial role.

He said it was a tragedy that Judge Bill Wilson had resigned from his role.

"Justice Wilson built up a brilliant reputation in the course of his legal career," he said.

Speaking in Parliament in the absence of Dr Graham, who is in the US on parliamentary business, Green MP Julie-Anne Genter said the investigation into Bill Wilson raised a number of characteristics of the judiciary in a small country like New Zealand - including the limited and intimate circle of acquaintances that make up the higher echelon of the judiciary.

National MP Simon Bridges said the Law Commission had taken urgent steps to prepare an issues paper on the subject which it released in March 2011.

He said National would support the bill to select committee stage but would not support it any further unless it was part of a wider courts review - as recommended by the Law Commission.

The issues paper by the Law Commission says judges are already subject to ethical codes developed within the judiciary through the evolution of common law.

"Any judge found to breach the code can be subject to a formal complaint," said Mr Bridges.

The Law Commission is working on a wider review of the court structure and it recommended that if a register was found to be necessary it should be part of a new courts act.

"It deals with a serious subject, namely confidence in the courts which interpret this Parliament's laws - we have reservations about whether a register of judges' pecuniary interests is an appropriate mechanism to safeguard that confidence."

Labour supported sending the bill to select committee for consideration.

Labour MP Charles Chauvel said it was the first time a member's bill had triggered a Law Commission report.

"I think it's another reason to indicate that this bill has significance attached to it," he said.

He said Labour were supporting the bill because it believed in the importance of the open administration of justice.

"It is important to recognise that the bill raises some serious constitutional and other legal issues - these need to be carefully canvassed in select committee," he said.

- APNZ

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