An expansion of a radical pilot that allows adults to avoid court and criminal convictions for low-level offences has strong backing, including from Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

Three pilot iwi justice panels - also known as marae justice panels - have been running in Manukau, Gisborne and Lower Hutt since July 2014. A similar community justice panel operates in Christchurch.

Police steer some low-level offenders to the panels instead of court. Offenders must be adults, must intimate guilt or admit the offence, and the offence must carry a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment or less.

Family violence and methamphetamine offences are excluded. Common charges dealt with by the panels include driving offences, possession of stolen goods and trespassing.
Appearances aren't limited to Maori - in South Auckland for example, about 60 per cent of participants are non-Maori.


Justice Minister Amy Adams said the pilots were being evaluated before any decisions were made on expanding them. However, anecdotal reports had been positive, including on reoffending.

Letting people off court wasn't being soft on crime, she said.

"Sending someone off to jail for their first shoplifting offence might make society feel good, but if that then sets them on a lifetime path of crime, then I don't think society has won out of the deal.

"Having sat through these panels, they are not a soft option ... the offender certainly has to pay a price."

Panellists always include one police staff member and a mix of community leaders and volunteers, church leaders, kaumatua, social workers and school teachers.

Manukau Urban Maori Authority (Muma) run their marae justice panels weekly at Nga Whare Watea Marae and Papakura Marae.

Irirangi Mako, justice services manager, said agreed actions with offenders include volunteering at a local marae or food bank, a formal apology to a victim or agreement to make repayments.

"Agreements can also include working with other agencies or services that support positive change such as counselling and anger management courses."

The Ministry of Justice has noted a "huge" level of community support for restorative justice panels, saying once people enter the court system it becomes harder to address the causes of their offending.

Police are also fans of the panels. A Ministry of Justice briefing from September 24, released under the Official Information Act, notes an urgent need to decide whether more panels will be set-up across the country.

"The Police Commissioner has expressed a preference at Leadership Board for a national roll-out of panels," the briefing states. "Police are currently undertaking enquiries through its local staff to ascertain community interest in and capability to establish panels around the country."

Another document from December 1 state that "developments in the justice sector suggest that iwi justice panels will be a key strategic project".

Despite that apparent importance, funding for the panels is confirmed only until July, with support beyond that dependent on the formal evaluation and May's Budget.


In a recent case, police caught a 22-year-old single mother of three driving without a licence, and referred her to the Manukau panel.

It was learnt that the woman was struggling with finances, and didn't have much family support. It was agreed that a driver licence would be obtained, and the woman would work with the Manukau Urban Maori Authority's Whanau Ora team.

This helped her get funding through Work and Income to pay for her licence, she received budgeting advice, enrolled in a parenting course through Barnardo's, and investigated work experience options.

Six weeks after the panel appearance, a progress report is sent to police.