Editorial: Public deserve to know legal limits of self defence

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The outpouring of popular support for shop owner Virender Singh when charges against him were dismissed after a depositions hearing, carries a strong message. It confirms many people are disturbed that a person's right to defend his property or his family, when forced, can be the subject of judicial scrutiny. That, in turn, puts the spotlight on how the police use their discretion when deciding whether to charge people who use force to defend themselves.

The failure of the prosecution in a string of high-profile self-defence cases suggests something is amiss.

It appears the police are content to pass such cases on to the courts and allow them to deliver judgments. That may be the easiest option for them, but it sends an odd message to criminals and commits the likes of Mr Singh, who tackled youths trying to rob his liquor store, to months of worry and uncertainty. In such cases, the police should act more decisively at a far earlier stage.

The Justice Minister has asked for a report on how the police use their discretion, but seems unconvinced that the law on self-defence needs a thorough review. In that, he will doubtless be backed by many legal experts. But the degree of public unease about Mr Singh's case and, more generally, the level of violence in the community suggest some change is required, even if it is simply to spell out explicitly the police's right to exercise discretion in self-defence cases.

On one matter, the minister need not concern himself. Contrary to the view of criminal lawyer Greg King, this case did not demonstrate why pre-trial depositions should be retained. Inconsistencies of evidence and suchlike will always come out at some stage during the judicial process. Axing depositions hearings, as prescribed by the incoming Criminal Procedure Bill, will speed that up.

- NZ Herald

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