Not for the first time in her political career, Corrections Minister Judith Collins finds herself in hot water. The president of the Criminal Bar Association, Tony Bouchier, considers the forthright politician has overstepped the mark with her comments about the absconder Mathew Kidman.
Kidman, who was on electronically monitored bail and facing two charges of unlawful sexual connection, cut off his bracelet last week. It was not the first time he had escaped from custody. He was captured last night.
In an interview, the minister described a judge's decision to remand Kidman to electronically monitored bail as "unusual". She made the point that, as a rule, "we [ministers] don't criticise judges". Discussing the case, she said the Corrections Department had not recommended electronic bail and she didn't believe the police would have been happy with the bail decision. Ms Collins said that while in her view it was the wrong call, she accepted she did not know what information the judge reviewed.
She also remarked that, while it was all very well in hindsight to discuss a decision from the court, judges tried to make the best decisions they could on the information available to them.
On the face of it, her comments were unexceptionable, though they carried resonance coming from a minister of the crown. Mr Bouchier yesterday seized on this aspect, noting that as a minister Ms Collins would understand the concept of separation of powers. As the Auckland lawyer put it: "The judiciary don't poke their nose into politics and vice versa."
The concept Mr Bouchier had in mind requires ministers to exercise judgment before commenting on judicial decisions, whether generally, or in relation to the specifics of an individual case.
This principle is codified in the Cabinet Manual. The document, which guides the conduct of the Executive, says ministers "should not express any views that are likely to be publicised if these views could be regarded as reflecting adversely on the impartiality, personal views, or ability of any judge". The manual includes the advice that ministers "should avoid at all times any comment that could be construed as being intended to influence the courts in subsequent cases".
Ms Collins' remarks could, at a stretch, be seen to skate close to these clear warnings. It is clear, however, they were couched in a way that accepted judges were the right people to make bail decisions because they had the appropriate information in front of them.
New Zealand needs robust ministers who speak their minds. Ms Collins is one of them. It is a habit which in the past has got her in trouble. But it is hard to see how her bail remarks in this case would harm the judiciary as a whole or the judge who made the decision.
Mr Bouchier suggested the Attorney-General, who manages the relationship between ministers and the courts, have a word with the Corrections Minister. It is entirely possible that such an intervention will one day be required with the bluff Ms Collins. In the matter of the absconding defendant, it is unwarranted.