Marcus Elliott: Sensible Sentencing Trust website a travesty of justice

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Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

The Sensible Sentencing Trust has now launched its "Judge the Judges" website. A spokeswoman for the trust said that the site is not just about "naming and shaming" judges but educating the public on how the court system works.

The website portrays the green beige of a gaming table and decks of cards laid out. Lesson 1 in the trust's education of the public is therefore that the court system is a game and that randomness, coupled with the skill of the player, will determine the outcome.

The site wrongly describes the names of various judges, referring to some as "Judge" and some as "Justice". The former is found in the District Court and the latter in the High Court. Lesson 2: Such distinctions are not relevant and it is not necessary to show judicial officers even the basic courtesy of describing their position accurately.

The site acknowledges that many if not most of the decisions of the courts will be thoroughly justified and correct. However, it then proceeds to list "a small snapshot of cases", most of which feature decisions which have been ruled (by the trust) to have been wrong - primarily by reference to events which took place after the judge's decision was actually made.

Lessons 3 and 4: Judge the whole system by those few cases the trust deems it necessary to highlight; base your assessment on events which were unknown to the judge at the time of the judgment.

The site also acknowledges that judges are human and so one cannot expect perfection. However, in those cases where the trust deems that the system has failed, it classifies the judge as the Joker, because "they truly are a wild card". Where the trust endorses the decision, the judge is portrayed as the Ace of Hearts because "they care and they've aced it". Lesson 5: Judges who made decisions the trust does not like did so because they don't care.

Offenders and victims are allocated cards based upon the extent to which the trust deems that the outcome favoured each. Where offenders benefit, they are said to have "aced the justice system to their favour". Lesson 6: It is possible to pervert the course of justice in your favour -presumably even easier to achieve when the judge does not care.

Although the site acknowledges that judges do no more or less than apply fixed statutory criteria to their decision making, there is no link to these crucial statutes. There is not even an attempt to summarise the principles applicable to bail or sentencing. Lesson 7: You don't even need to understand the legal principles the judge was obliged to apply to conclude that the judge was wrong.

In a case the trust describes as one of the worst examples of poor judgment by the judiciary, the site does not include a link to the judgment. Lesson 8: There is no need to understand the facts of the case either. However, the trust has taken the trouble to include a link to the current range of judges' salaries. Lesson 9: Not only do judges not care, but they are overpaid as well.

The "snapshot" of cases includes comments that judges are "arrogant", "out of touch" and "a soft touch". Their judgments are said to be "ridiculous" and "an absolute joke". One judge is told to hang her head in shame. Lesson 10: If the trust says the judge's decision is wrong it follows that a personal attack on the judge is warranted.

If this is education it is more akin to screaming abuse at the referee from the stands in an attempt to educate the crowd about the rules of the game.

Everyone has rights in our society, even those accused of crimes. That distinguishes this country from those in which people are summarily executed or locked up indefinitely without trial. It is inevitable that a judge will need to weigh competing considerations to make very difficult decisions. Judges carry the burdens of these decisions.

The real lesson this website offers is not to the public but to judges: When you make decisions about bail or sentence you should apply the philosophies of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. If you don't, the trust will be there to insult you, ridicule you and question your ability and integrity.

No one is entitled to interfere with the justice process in that way.

Marcus Elliott is a Christchurch barrister.

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