It is a principle of the New Zealand justice system that the administration of the law should be equal and transparent. Confidence in the rule of law rests on the assumption that people accused of criminal or civil offences are innocent until proven guilty and that, as a rule, the prosecution of alleged offenders takes place in a public setting.
It is difficult to see quite how these tenets have yet been satisfied in the extraordinary and protracted civil case involving William Yan and three others. The multimillion-dollar settlement between Yan and the Commissioner of Police was announced in a statement issued by the police media centre.
Under an arrangement approved by the High Court, Yan pays $42.85 million so that property seized for alleged money laundering can be released. The eye-watering sum is a full and final settlement of proceedings brought under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act. The settlement acknowledges that the four accused have made no admissions of criminal or civil liability.
For the moment, the police statement is all that the public is entitled to know about the discussions which occurred between the parties, and the judgment of the court. The judgment itself remains suppressed and subject to confidentiality orders. So it is difficult to conclude with confidence that justice has been seen to be done.
This is not to say that justice has not been done, or to suggest that a wealthy individual has received special treatment before the law. It is simply to observe that in the settlement of this highly controversial case it cannot be held that the public knows any more at this stage than the contents of a single-page statement.
On that matter, we must trust the authorities, given that the police have stated that for legal reasons they will be making no comment beyond the assertion of Detective Inspector Paul Hampton, who called the settlement a "significant success".
Hampton, manager of the asset recovery/ financial crime group at police national headquarters, said the outcome reflected "the effective working relationship between Chinese and New Zealand law enforcement agencies".
Chinese authorities were involved because the settlement was struck after a three-year investigation into transactions in New Zealand involving funds allegedly derived from frauds committed in China.
Yan maintains he is innocent of the charges levelled by Chinese investigators.
Nevertheless, a settlement has been reached which will involve the release of more than $40 million worth of assets back to Yan, including property, stocks and luxury vehicles. Beyond the asset arrangement, negotiations will take place between the New Zealand and Chinese Governments over sharing the recovered funds. There is clearly some way to go in this matter, but it will continue to play out away from public scrutiny.
Under section 95 of the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) legislation, courts can make orders that are in "the overall interests of justice". In earlier cases settled by this legislation, the interests of justice have included common sense compromises and the saving of time and cost. In the Yan matter, had the civil case been pursued, a High Court trial could easily have lasted six months or so, given that language difficulties would have required the presence of translators.
It is appropriate that the law allows parties to reach deals which permit a speedy resolution to proceedings which otherwise could tie up the courts for months. It is just as sensible for the maintenance of confidence in the law that all the settlements and judgments in the Yan case get to see the light of day.