Editorial: Cost of court incompetence

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Courts of law in this country do not always treat drink-driving charges with the seriousness they deserve. Photo / NZPA
Courts of law in this country do not always treat drink-driving charges with the seriousness they deserve. Photo / NZPA

Courts of law in this country do not always treat drink-driving charges with the seriousness they deserve. Judges listen to technical defences they would never entertain if lawyers dared offer them as a reason to dismiss other crimes. But the case we report today is worse. It has been dismissed because a court failed to arrange a judge to hear it at the appointed time.

The case against Mervyn James Brown was shaping up to be a classic of the blood-alcohol genre even before the Papakura District Court made a mess of it.

The 72-year-old, facing his fifth drink-driving charge, had pleaded not guilty. His lawyer argued he had been unlawfully detained because, having blown twice the legal alcohol limit on a breath test, he was ordered to wait at the roadside while police tried to find the necessary equipment for the next evidential steps.

The lawyer was going to argue that he had been also unlawfully detained at his property, which the officers were visiting, and that the absence of a testing device at that stage cast doubt on the charge.

Judge John Clapham, who has granted a stay of prosecution, did not accept any of these arguments. As he remarked in his judgment, "The evil of people drinking and driving needs to be dealt with in a robust way and defendants should not be able to take refuge in technicalities".

He found the charge proved on all grounds but has thrown out the prosecution because Brown had been waiting 14 months for a hearing. The charges were laid in July last year. A hearing was scheduled for January 25. An hour and a half of the court's time was allocated but no judge was assigned. When that was realised, the hearing was rescheduled for May. On that day it was displaced by other defended hearings. It went back on to the waiting list in June and July and was eventually heard in September, when Judge Clapham decided the delay had been inexcusable and fired a broadside at the administration of justice.

Surprisingly, he has aimed his comments not at the district court but at the Ministry of Justice. He blames an insufficient provision of "resources".

Who really was at fault that day in January when no judge was available? What were the judges doing? Police witnesses, prosecutors, defence lawyers and defendants can be busy people. When they allocate an hour and half to be at a court at a time the court has set, it is the responsibility of judges and registrars to be available.

It is too easy to blame a distant provider of "resources". What exactly did the Papakura District Court lack that day? Filing clerks? Calendars? Or a judge with the agility to step in at short notice and deal with it?

It is fair to wonder whether someone would have stepped up had the case involved a crime considered more serious than drink driving. Lawyers who make a specialty of defending these cases have made them unduly complicated for law enforcement and the courts.

Judge Clapham has rejected all the technical defences raised in this case and has granted a stay on grounds of undue delay. The police have appealed to the High Court against the stay, which means a case that should have been straightforward might well have another hearing, or more.

The public, who provide the considerable resources already allocated to the administration of justice, can only lament the waste when cases are drawn out and work duplicated.

Not before time, judges have reduced their tolerance of technical defences to drink-driving charges. But here, a proven case will escape without penalty unless an appeal succeeds.

Our alcohol limit is already too generous. When our system of justice is also lenient, all of us on the roads are left a little less safe.

Purists may sniff, but bring on the babes

You can almost hear the boxing purists gnashing their teeth over the latest addition to next month's Woodstock Honey Fight for Life. As if the spectacle of Kiwi rugby lads pitting themselves against Aussie rugby league hard men was not bad enough, they will now have to endure another battle of the babes. Former Miss New Zealand Amber Peebles will match her fledgling skills with those of Ruby Rose, who, according to the promoter, is an Australian lesbian more customarily associated with disc jockeying, modelling and acting.
There is a tenuous connection to the traditional world of boxing in all this. Ruby Rose is the god-daughter of Australian boxing legend Lionel Rose. She has even fought, successfully, in one previous bout for charity. But pedigree and performance are not what this is all about. Indeed, given the contestants' limited training and experience in the ring, there will probably be more flailing than boxing. That, however, is not the point. This is all about entertainment, and there is every possibility that it will replicate the ratings success of July's bout between Jaime Ridge and Rosanna Arkle.
Boxing purists sniffed at that fight. The New Zealand Professional Boxing Association president, Lance Revill, described it as "making a mockery of the sport". In many ways, he is right. Yet, in reality, he can hardly complain. Nor is he even in a position where he can claim the moral high ground.
Boxing is on its knees, a situation that owes something to its very nature and something to a long series of self-inflicted wounds. So deepseated is its decline that there is now, quite simply, far more public interest in celebrity bouts than standard fare even when, as at the London Olympics, this includes serious female fighters.
These celebrity bouts are, in effect, resuscitating interest in boxing. The full houses for such events confirms as much. Those who deny this are like the cricket purists who lament that the Twenty20 format is ruining their game.
People are engaged by celebrities entering the ring, the more so if they are glamorous women removed totally from their normal comfortable existence. Will they be prepared to scrap it out or will they run up the white flag when it all becomes too much for them? Yes, it may be a circus. It may have little to do with boxing. But it is also a highly popular brand of entertainment. Never mind the scruples of the purists. Bring on the babes.

- Herald on Sunday

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