Offenders spared prison by Judge Raoul Neave question whether he should have been tougher.

A persistent criminal with a long record says he walked out of court laughing after a judge gave him a light sentence for arson.

And a killer drink-driver who dodged prison now questions whether justice was served - or if the same judge should have put him inside.

It is not uncommon for victims of crime to complain there is no justice in the courts. But with Judge Raoul Neave, even the criminals he keeps out of prison question whether he should be tougher.

Judge Neave became a focus of criticism after sentencing an Auckland financier to 250 hours' community work for running over Sung Jin Kim, breaking both his legs.


He told Guy Hallwright - also banned from driving for 18 months and ordered to pay reparation of $20,000 - that he had suffered humiliation beyond what was fair while facing a charge of causing grievous bodily harm with reckless disregard.

The case came as the State Services Commission turned its oversight of the public service on the Ministry of Justice. Bureaucrats are meeting members of the judiciary over recommendations that judges find a way to report publicly on performance - including consistency in sentencing.

Craig Lyell, with his wife Natasha, faced arson and fraud charges in 2008. The couple had insured a car for more than it was worth, set fire to it, then lied to police about it being stolen so he could make a false insurance claim.

Lyell, who has a long criminal record, including a rape conviction, said: "I went to court expecting a prison sentence. I walked out of court laughing. It was a slap on the wrist as opposed to three months in prison. I wanted to go down the pub and have a beer to celebrate."

He was given 250 hours community service. Lyell said he had been to prison before and was on a community work term when he went to court. He said adding more community work to his existing sentence was pointless.

An appeal by the Crown meant he was given a tougher sentence more in keeping with his expectations.

"It definitely wasn't a light crime," Lyell said. "It was dishonest. We lost the car. We lost the insurance. On the bright side, I got 250 hours [community work]. Hooray!"

Drink-driver Daniel Wheeler, who was three times over the legal alcohol limit when he killed Nathan King in 2008, was reluctant to speak because he did not want to cause more pain to his victim's parents, Merv and Carol.

The Kings had spoken publicly of their anger over Wheeler's sentence, 12 months' home detention.

In sentencing, Judge Neave told him: "As often as not, we have reasonably decent people before us who as the result of one tragic incident have wrought tragic consequences on the lives of others."

Wheeler said: "I fully expected to go inside for it. It was a surprise to me. Sometimes I think a prison sentence would have been better. I've spent years tearing myself up over it. I think about it all the time."

He said the home detention sentence helped him keep his home. It meant his family suffered less. He pledged "1000 per cent" to never be in court on a similar charge.

Merv King said he felt pain at the judge's comments every time he thought of the sentencing. "He said 'sorry' to me once. He said he was 'sorry' to Wheeler 10 times. Judge Neave had more sympathy for him than us."

Carol King said the couple had been led to believe by the judge hearing the initial case that a jail sentence would be delivered. She said she believed another judge could have made a different decision.

The commission report said "consistency and predictability of judgment reduces uncertainty about how the law will be applied". The Justice Ministry has said it will meet the judiciary over issues raised in the report.

Slap on the hand?

Some of the sentences by Judge Raoul Neave that sparked criticism:

September 2008: Drink-driving causing death, 12 months' home detention. Parents of victim Nathan King attack sentence.
November 2008: Arson, fraud, 250 hours of community work for arson. Crown appeals and sentence changed to six months' home detention.
July 2012: Dangerous driving causing death, driving while forbidden, nine months' home detention. Family of victim Danielle Reeves attack sentence.
August 2012: Recklessly causing grievous bodily harm, 250 hours' community service, $20,000 reparations and a driving ban. Sentence draws criticism, and victim Sung Jin Kim is now seeking judicial review.