A promising young rugby player with a "glittering career" ahead of him has been given a discharge without conviction after admitting an assault on a man who was at a bar with his ex-girlfriend. The judge in the Wellington District Court said the consequences of a conviction would be out of proportion to the seriousness of the offence.
Many who have commented on this case since we reported it on our front page yesterday have asked whether the same leniency would be extended to a teenager who was not a promising sportsman. The answer, probably, is yes.
Discharges without conviction are reasonably common for young first offenders for whom the shock of an arrest and prosecution might be sufficient to ensure they learn from a youthful mistake. But that should be the only ground on which a discharge is given.
To Teariki Ben-Nicholas, who played for New Zealand at under-20 level last year, Judge Peter Rollo said, "The information which is before me suggests you have every opportunity to pursue a professional rugby career at the top level, maybe even rising as far as the All Blacks if your development continues." He also noted Ben-Nicholas was studying at university for a degree in law and commerce, "so I have the clear view that you are someone who should be given a second chance to reach your full potential without a conviction standing in the way of that".
If those were the judge's only reasons for the discharge, his decision would be objectionable. The idea that some occupations deserve protection from the consequences of a minor criminal offence simply because the consequences may be greater, is a notion the judiciary ought to rethink. Justice needs to be consistent and fair. A conviction is damaging to many a career, not just those that happen to attract public attention. The assumption that those in the public eye stand to suffer more than others if they commit a criminal offence is dubious at best. Those less visible can suffer more than judges might know.
The only good reason to relieve someone from the consequences of a conviction - and it should apply regardless of someone's occupational prospects - is that the person might respond well to a second chance. Judge Rollo noted Ben-Nicholas, now 20, had expressed genuine remorse, made an apology to his victim, paid him $500 compensation as ordered and recognised the seriousness of the crime. "So I have the clear view that you are someone who should be given a second chance ..." Enough said. The "glittering career", the difficulties of travel with a conviction and the idea that these are out of proportion to the seriousness of the offence are highly questionable and of no importance except to remind the offender what he stood to lose. The inconveniences a criminal record creates for travel and employment do not seem out of proportion to an assault in the circumstances described to the court. It was a serious offence, albeit arising from teenage emotions - but a discharge is justified when a judge is confident a young offender will respond as most people do when given a break.