Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Crusher Collins' eye on reform

Justice Minister Judith Collins has already set her stamp on the portfolio, sweeping aside many of the proposals of her predecessor Simon Power. She explains the reasons behind her reforms

Judith Collins. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Judith Collins. Photo / Sarah Ivey

As Police Minister, Judith Collins made an ally of the metal crushers, took on the boy racers and won. She took on the most serious criminals in New Zealand, passing the "three strikes" law to deprive them of parole. She is Parliament's self-proclaimed Great Deterrer.

But she wasn't so hardline as Justice Minister when it came to alcopops. Those bright coloured, sugar-loaded drinks beloved by the youth of today were hated by former Justice Minister Simon Power, who was responsible for the first draft of broad-sweeping alcohol reforms in the wake of a major alcohol report by the Law Commission. And alcopops were in his sights.

His proposal was to limit them to a maximum of 5 per cent - about the same as a beer, the drinks that the youth of his generation had started out on.

But after he left in 2011, Judith Collins - also a former lawyer - took over as justice minister. By August Collins announced the alcopops limit was gone - and instead the industry would be given a chance to regulate itself.

She put in a safety net clause to allow the Government to step in quickly should the industry fail to exercise responsibility.

There may well have been logical grounds for that change of heart, but the move was widely regarded as Collins buckling under pressure from the alcohol industry, who she met with in July.

Collins does not do "buckling". The changes she made were part of her efforts to put her own stamp on the portfolio in which Simon Power was very active and gained a reputation as a reformer.

No minister likes to simply be the polishing machine for the minister who went before, finishing off the work begun by another. Collins is certainly not happy to do that. "I'm not someone who's here because I can't think of something better to do. I think I can make a difference.".

So while all the public attention has been on her other scandal-plagued portfolio of ACC, Collins has been busy making significant changes in the justice sector. Many of those have involved unapologetically unpicking some of Power's legacy.

Nor does she pull her punches when she disagrees with Power's measures, describing cuts he proposed to legal aid as "incredibly unfair" and his suggestion that aspects of the inquisitorial system be introduced in New Zealand as "plainly unworkable."

That was an area Power was particularly passionate about and he invested significant resource in it, regarding it as less gruelling on victims than the adversarial system and capable of eliciting better evidence.

In his valedictory, Power said the way the adversarial system dealt with children was unacceptable: "long delays, barbaric practices, all in the name of tradition and precedent."

Collins has equally strong views, but they are the opposite. "We don't have an inquisitorial system, we have an adversarial system. The state has huge powers and I'm not going to have a system where someone has to prove their innocence."

She told the Law Commission to halt its work, saying mixing the systems would be difficult in practice and increase the risk of wrongful convictions. "It may well make some people feel better about the justice system but it will not lead to a better form of justice."

She has also flagged a rethink of Power's Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Amendment Bill - a bill which prevents prisoners benefiting financially from any compensation awarded. Instead, any money left over after reparation was paid would be put into a general fund for victims of crime. Collins has put that bill on ice while she gets the views of other parties, claiming she wants to find some common ground.

Labour's justice spokesman, Charles Chauvel, is sceptical, but Collins claims she is concerned it sends the pendulum too far in the wrong direction - and the change would mean there is effectively no consequences when it is the State that errs. "I just think it's really important that we get that right, that we don't go so far overboard in one direction that we end up causing injustices in another."

It comes as a surprise from the woman known as Crusher, who is widely regarded as far less liberal than Power. She denies she has gone soft. "What I also know is that the State has an obligation to act fairly and decently and to act better than the offenders in prisons. So I am someone who doesn't believe the State is always right."

She is, she claims, the minister who "brought back deterrence", pointing to the three strikes and the car crushing. She does not believe that has changed.

"What I am is a lawyer with 20 years' experience before I came to this place and I do know that deterrence works. That is something that has not been part of the justice sector language for many years. Frankly, I think I've brought that back in."

As well as kneecapping the reforms she does not agree with, Collins has given her own twist to those she has kept on, such as the Family Court review. She has reeled back some of Power's proposed cuts to legal aid which would have meant it could not be claimed for Family Court cases such as adoptions, paternity suits, property matters, civil disputes and maintenance.

Collins has persuaded her Cabinet colleagues to change their minds, describing it as "incredibly unfair" - in particular for women. She concedes the change means sacrificing some savings, "but I think it's more important that we don't have the court system used to further bludgeon a party who can't afford legal representation."

Power's reforms often angered the legal fraternity - from his cuts to legal aid to changes to criminal procedure which were regarded as eroding the right to silence and to choose a jury trial, and on which he was forced to compromise.

Collins' approach is more conciliatory. Law Society president Jonathan Temm says she has proven willing to listen, and to make changes where she agreed.

"That said, we haven't agreed on everything and we still think some of the changes that are coming through [in legal aid] are impacting in a much harder way than their policy people anticipated."

Asked about the differences between herself and Power, Collins says she worked as a lawyer for 20 years before she became an MP.

Power was a practising lawyer for about five years before he entered Parliament in 1999. If he was the reformer, she sees herself as the pragmatist: "I'm very pragmatic and practical, but ultimately at the heart of it all I am a lawyer."

She has also made it clear that she won't be a pushover. She has not surrendered on other changes to legal aid that upset the lawyers. She says there are legitimate concerns about the number of inexperienced lawyers who rely on legal aid for a living, rather than it being a type of community service most law firms do.

"Frankly, when you come out of law school you're a danger to clients. You need three years before you know which end is up and another three before you're capable of making serious decisions."

Collins has taken on a goal as part of the Government's "Better Public Services Plan" - her part in this is to reduce the crime rate by 45,000 a year. In this, she remains convinced of the powers of deterrence. There are also the added political benefits of taking a hard line.

So she has introduced changes to bail laws and to parole laws. In the wake of public concern about the release of Stewart Murray Wilson, last month she introduced a bill to set up Public Protection Orders which allow authorities to continue to detain, or to recall to prison, the most dangerous ex-prisoners even if they have served their sentence - a law estimated to cover between 5 to 12 people at any one time.

Ahead of her is the reform of privacy laws. In that, she will undoubtedly have learned a thing or two from that other portfolio area, ACC which has been plagued by privacy issues since she took it over.

Judith Collins
* Raised on Waikato dairy farm. Youngest of six children.
* Education LLB, LLM (Hons) Master of Taxation Studies (MTaxS). Age: 53
* Married to David Wong Tung. They have a son James.
* MP since 2002. Minister of Justice, ACC and Ethnic Affairs

- NZ Herald

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