Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: A driving force in the court of law

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Zahir Mohamed is sceptical of the timing behind the coming law change. Photo / Chris Gorman
Zahir Mohamed is sceptical of the timing behind the coming law change. Photo / Chris Gorman

It's just gone 9am and the business of courtroom 6 at the Manukau District Court won't be getting under way until 9:30. But Zahir Mohamed is already in his favourite position: at the defence counsel table, directly behind the prosecuting police sergeant, so close he can practically breathe down his neck.

He's immaculate in a dark suit and a dark-blue, polka-dotted tie secured with a tie-pin to his pink shirt. But his briefcase is worn and battered by a long life of service - most of it to people charged with drunken driving.

Mohamed, who turns 76 in a week, is not a Muslim as his name suggests. Born in Kenya to a part-Persian mother and an Indian father, he was raised in Uganda, where he practised law, including defending 119 murder cases, before the dictator Idi Amin expelled all the country's Asians in 1972.

In his first job here, the firm that employed him wanted him to specialise in drink-driving cases; within a year he went out on his own.

He bears the signs of his advancing years. The hands that regularly raise a water bottle to his lips tremble perceptibly and a recent fall has left him limping. But he plainly remains as tough a customer as he's ever been in 35 years specialising in this sort of work.

For much of the next hour, half of that time in front of Judge Josephine Bouchier who deploys a brisk and acerbic style to deal with a choked calendar, various lawyers jockey for priority. Mohamed wants to be heard first, since his client's case has been postponed once already and "the police are going to withdraw this case anyway, because they know they can't win it".

In the event, a case even more postponed than his gets the nod and Mohamed gets another delay; a trial date will be set this morning. If the lawyer is as disgruntled as his client is, he conceals it well.

In a drab and featureless interview room outside the courtroom door, Mohamed sits and reflects on almost half a life spent specialising in defence work in perhaps the least glamorous area of the law. The case the police can't win, he tells me, is one in which a driver suspected of being over the limit was processed after police entered his home. In July this year, they withdrew a similar charge against one of his clients. And he won another case on appeal to the High Court, on the grounds that the law required a police officer entering a property to tell the suspect explicitly what section of what act authorised the power of entry.

To those who believe in catching wrongdoers no matter what, that may seem pedantic and nit-picking. But, Mohamed explains, his job is to ensure justice is administered according to the law.

"I am not in the business of deciding guilt or innocence," he says. "I have taken an oath to defend a person to the best of my ability. As long as I protect their rights in court, I have done my job."

But, I protest, if someone had returned a breath test that shows they are over the limit, surely there is no question that they did what they are charged with having done.

"How do I know they were over the limit?" Mohamed counters. "Because a machine says it? Machines can be wrong. I have proved machines wrong. I have proved their blood tests wrong."

Mohamed's logic is the same as that of any other lawyer arguing the profession's role to act as a bulwark between state and citizen and he admits the police don't like him much "because their pride hurts when they lose a case".

"But I never hit an officer from behind [by misleading or confusing]. I turn him round and hit him in the face and if he gets up I corner him and hit him again so the judge has no choice but to throw the case out."

The planned law change that will lower the alcohol limit but impose a non-criminal penalty, without disqualification, on those below the existing limit is unlikely to boost Mohamed's workload. But he warns that there will be a flood of morning-after breath-test failures and he's cynical about the motive: the law is due to come into force just before Christmas next year.

"They always do that," he says. "It's about making money."

- NZ Herald

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