Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Disciplined Justices of the Peace kept secret

In response to an Official Information Act (OIA) request from the  Herald , the Ministry of Justice refused to name 18 JPs who were the subject of official complaints. Photo / File
In response to an Official Information Act (OIA) request from the Herald , the Ministry of Justice refused to name 18 JPs who were the subject of official complaints. Photo / File

The identities of Justices of the Peace disciplined for incompetence, making false allegations or misusing their title for personal gain are being kept secret by the Ministry of Justice.

The Ministry believes the privacy of censured Justices of the Peace (JPs) outweighs the public's right to know who they are, even though JPs from across the country disagree.

In response to an Official Information Act (OIA) request from the Herald, the Ministry refused to name 18 JPs who were the subject of official complaints - including one convicted of electoral fraud.

Two of the unnamed JPs committed offences so egregious they were removed from office by the Governor-General, three resigned after complaints were lodged against them and three were handed a letter of rebuke from the Ministry.

One is still before the court facing tax evasion charges.

Twelve JP association presidents and registrars from all over New Zealand believe the Ministry has it wrong.

JP Raj Thandi, registrar of the Franklin association, said JPs existed to serve the public.

"If we do something against the public we should be outed for it, plain and simple," he said.

Long-serving JP Diane Yalden, of the Bay of Plenty, said "justices are supposed to be upstanding citizens."

"If you've done the crime you should do the time - and be named for it," she said.

For the past 200 years, JPs have been volunteering to serve the public by performing official duties such as verifying divorce papers, signing court affidavits or overseeing bail applications.

Every year about 70 complaints against JPs are lodged with the Royal Federation of New Zealand Justices' Association.

The majority of these complaints are dismissed as frivolous, but on average four a year are deemed serious enough to be referred to the Ministry for further investigation.

The federation has "zero powers to discipline" or publicly name JPs for misconduct, said national registrar Alan Hart.

Hart said he could not wade into the debate over identifying wayward JPs, but added it was "interesting" other professions, such as lawyers and doctors, had governing bodies with these disciplinary powers.

In 2007, amendments to the Justices of the Peace Act introduced disciplinary processes for JPs, including warnings, suspensions and removal from office for misconduct.

Any disciplinary decisions made under the Act occur behind closed doors at the Ministry, but other western countries, such as Canada, have more transparent processes with JPs facing serious complaints fronting up at a public hearing.

Between 2011 and 2015, 18 complaints against JPs were investigated by the Ministry, including false allegations, inappropriate language, insurance fraud, improperly witnessing documents, bankruptcy and the misuse of a title, according to information obtained under the OIA.

In half of these cases no action was taken because the complaint was either not upheld or it did not relate to the individual's role as a JP.

The Herald challenged the Ministry's refusal to name JPs who had been disciplined, who resigned soon-after a complaint or who had been removed from office and previously named publicly.

The Ministry responded with the names of the two JPs, Daljit Singh and Agnes Arti, who were forced from office by the Governor-General and had already been publicly identified.

Singh was removed from office in 2014 after being convicted for electoral fraud. Arti was forced from office last year after she admitted to insurance fraud.

The Ministry declined to name any others.

Jeff Orr, the Ministry's chief legal counsel, wrote a letter to the Herald saying they would not identify JPs who resigned after a complaint because they no longer held office.

"Similarly I do not consider that the public interest outweighs the privacy interests of those who were rebuked for minor infringements," Orr wrote.

Four JP association presidents believed the discipline of JPs should be handled out of the public eye.

"Why would you want to offer your expertise to help the public if in the event of making a mistake you are going to be pilloried through the media?" asked Canterbury JP association president Ken Shields.

Leading administrative lawyer Graham Taylor, of Wellington, said JPs facing complaints deserved anonymity while they were investigated

But, if the complaint was upheld, he said, the JPs right to privacy should automatically diminish.

EXAMPLES OF JP COMPLAINTS

• In Auckland in 2011, a JP was sent a letter of rebuke for writing a business letter in an "aggressive tone" that misused the title 'JP' for personal gain.
• In the West Coast in 2013, a JP resigned from office after declaring bankruptcy following involvement in a property development which owed large sums to creditors.
• In Auckland in 2013, a community group called for the removal of a JP from office when he was arrested in India on terrorism charges. The charges were dropped and no action was taken.
• In Central Otago in 2013, a JP resigned from office after a police complaint that they made false allegations.
• In Auckland in 2015, a JP resigned from office after a complaint from a finance company that they had improperly witnessed loan documents.

- NZ Herald

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