Wanganui draws legal high flyers

By Aaron van Delden

Files of murder, manslaughter and methamphetamine dominate the space in Chris and Michele Wilkinson-Smith's office in their Whanganui home - serious crimes to be defended by this formidable husband and wife legal team.

The couple, who left Auckland for the River City in 2011, continue to represent Christopher Shadrock, the man accused of running down businesswoman Joanne Wang more than four years ago in a stolen four-wheel-drive in the carpark of the Westfield shopping centre in Manukau.

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith also devoted two years of her life to defending Chris Kahui, who was acquitted of murder following a High Court trial over the deaths in June 2006 of his 3-month-old twin sons, Chris and Cru.

She worked alongside lawyer Lorraine Smith on the Kahui case and will join her again next year in representing the man accused of murdering Charanpreet Dhaliwal, who was bashed to death in West Auckland in November 2011 while working his first shift as a security guard.

The majority of the Wilkinson-Smiths' work remains in Auckland, but a lot of preparation for it can be done remotely, in their office at home.

Mr Wilkinson-Smith was raised in Whanganui. His parents, the Smiths, are Papaiti farmers.

He wanted to return, and his wife had loved living in a provincial centre for several years while a Crown prosecutor in New Plymouth, which is where the two met.

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith and a friend had rented a house at Oakura (on the coast just south of New Plymouth) that they couldn't afford and needed a flatmate who would be willing to take a room for $100 a week. Mr Wilkinson-Smith was moving to New Plymouth from Wellington and, as a surfer, liked the home's location.

He moved in, and the pair eventually became "more than flatmates". They were wed in June 1999 at the Chateau on Mt Ruapehu. Their combined surname was Mr Wilkinson-Smith's idea.

Both worked as prosecutors for the Crown Solicitor in New Plymouth for 10 years, before moving to Auckland in 2005 and focusing on defending those accused of serious crimes.

While their court work is generally based in Auckland and Wellington, Mr Wilkinson-Smith said a lot of preparation for a trial could be done in Whanganui. Each day in court required about two days' preparation, he explained.

The 43-year-old had probably spent four months of this year in Auckland. His wife compares the commute to catching a bus - a flight up from Whanganui on Monday at 6.50am and back from Auckland on Friday at 6.30pm. She said the airport in Palmerston North was a good backstop. Wellington was also very accessible.

Although living in Whanganui meant spending money on airfares, Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said the lifestyle, cost of living and affordability of housing definitely made up for the travel costs.

The two lawyers still have their central Auckland chambers, in Shortland St, and employ a junior barrister and administrator, who keep the office manned. They also have a flat within walking distance of the High Court at Auckland.

But the Wilkinson-Smith family home, which the couple share with their four young children - the eldest still at primary school - a nanny, German exchange student and dog, is on St John's Hill in Whanganui.

In having children, Mr and Mrs Wilkinson-Smith have found handling cases of child abuse more unpleasant.

"I don't want to do a huge number more of those cases ... they're awful," Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said.

Still, through working on so many, the 42-year-old has become something of an expert on medical evidence relating to head injuries in children, and her involvement in any cases involving child abuse that the couple deal with is a given.

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said child abuse was "a huge problem in New Zealand", and unless some of the underlying social issues were addressed, the problem would remain.

"Even with all the resources we have, parenting's difficult," Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said. "If you suddenly are 16 or 17 and you've never really had to have a job in your life, you've never actually had to do anything very hard and someone gives you an infant, you're going to find that really hard."

She said most of the children at the centre of child-abuse cases were subjected to violence well before the authorities were alerted, but parents - out of fear - didn't seek help after incidents of abuse.

"How do you go and say, 'Oh, I've just shaken my baby'? You know, with all the consequences of that."

Despite starting out as prosecutors around the time of the Christchurch Civic Creche "witch-hunt", the Wilkinson-Smiths said having children and experiencing life had taught them things were less black and white.

A problem like child abuse was complex, so a solution would need to be quite sophisticated.

During investigations in the 1990s into claims of sexual abuse at the Civic Creche, psychologists asserted children didn't lie about really serious things. That claim is now known to be untrue.

Anatomical dolls were used in forensic interviews, but now interviewers are told not to employ such dolls, because they tend to suggest things to children.

The couple say those points illustrate the fraught issue of expert evidence, where juries accept what an expert says as accurate.

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said retinal haemorrhages, for example, were treated as diagnostic of non-accidental injuries in children, even though the reasons for this phenomenon were not fully understood and may be entirely disputed in 10 years' time.

Meanwhile, the use of new forms of evidence such as digital photography, CCTV footage and text messaging, which were not available when the two barristers started practising nearly two decades ago, was still being negotiated.

Of even more concern to the Wilkinson-Smiths, though, are massive delays in addressing serious charges in courts throughout New Zealand.

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said there were 88 trials waiting to be heard at the Whanganui District Court in November. That meant if you were charged with a crime today, you wouldn't get a trial until mid-2014.

"It's just the recession. Every area is underfunded and justice is no different. The problem with justice is that eventually the judges will just start dismissing the charges. That's a danger at the moment."

She said the net reduction of 68 court jobs, from a nationwide restructuring confirmed this month, wouldn't help.

"They're cutting out the level of district court administrative staff who really keep things going," Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said.

"I don't think the people making these decisions have any idea how much the staff do. They haven't been well paid historically, they've done the job because it's sort of a job for life and they get real expertise in it.

"I think the Ministry [of Justice] knows there are huge problems, and they will throw some resources at it when the economy improves."

Mrs Wilkinson-Smith said the public seemed preoccupied with crime and punishment. She sensed a "string him up" mentality dominated opinion.

"And we can do that, we can get every single guilty person, you could lock every one of them up, but ... you'll lock up a lot of innocent ones as well. Where do you draw the line? We don't want the people out there who are dangerous, but nor do we want to have a society that lacks compassion."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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