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David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Top judges speak out in defence of system

Comments come against a backdrop of calls for greater accountability

Judges are frequently criticised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust lobby group. Photo / File
Judges are frequently criticised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust lobby group. Photo / File

Two of New Zealand's chief judges have stepped forward in defence of the judicial system after public criticism of controversial decisions.

High Court chief judge Helen Winkelmann and District Court chief judge Jan-Marie Doogue told the Weekend Herald of the effect personal comments had on judges.

But they also upheld the right and role of the public to make those comments and take part in debate about the decisions made by judges.

Justice Winkelmann said: "The courts are open to the public and the media and are regularly subject to criticism.

"In that sense, I don't see how they could become more open. Criticism of judicial performance must be expected as part of how our open society works."

The interviews come after an outcry over decisions and comments made by judges at district court level, where 145 judges handle about 160,000 cases each year.

Judge Raoul Neave became a target for abuse when he sentenced investment banker Guy Hallwright to community work and a driving ban after breaking the legs of a man he drove over.

Calls were then made for Judge David McNaughton to stand down after details emerged of his decision to bail the teenager who went on to murder Christie Marceau.

The two judges also spoke against a backdrop of calls for greater accountability from the judiciary.

Judges are frequently criticised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust lobby group.

A recent State Services Commission report into the Ministry of Justice raised performance standards for the judiciary and the Law Commission has questioned whether the judiciary should produce an annual report to be "individually and collectively accountable".

Justice Winkelmann said the judiciary had an accountability programme which showed the number of cases in the court system and how long it took for those to be heard.

She said "setting standards that measure the efficiency with which a court operates is important" but "achieving those standards depends in large part upon the adequacy and appropriateness of the resources made available to the courts".

Funding was not directly provided as it was in Australia.

"For these resources we are again dependent upon the Ministry of Justice."

She said calls for "accountability" on the quality of judgments was not possible outside the current system of appeals, which provided its own safeguards.

"The requirements that judges work in public and that they provide reasons for their decisions provides the best means of accountability. Their decisions can be, and are, the subject of public comment and criticism.

"It can also be seen as a form of sanction that the judges are able to be criticised publicly. Most judges who experience that kind of criticism would feel it keenly."

Judge Doogue said judges underwent ongoing training through the Institute of Judicial Studies to "improve clarity and consistency".

Judges were bound by convention not to comment publicly on decisions by them or other judges.

"Like all professionals, any criticism is taken seriously. It not only affects the judge concerned and their family but impacts on all of the judiciary. However, this is part of the judicial role, and judges understand that their comments can cause debate. They recognise that the public have every right to express their opinion."

She rejected suggestions the judiciary was out of touch.

"Engagement with the community is essential for our judges. While we are aware that impartiality is absolutely necessary in order that we are fair in our judgments, the judges also understand that they apply the law on behalf of the community."

- NZ Herald

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