Chief Justice sounds warning on justice reforms

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias has warned that decisions “which seem quite innocent” are undermining the basic principles of the constitution.

In the Harkness Henry Lecture, delivered at Waikato University last month, Dame Sian made apparent references to the Government’s criminal justice reforms.

She said control of court processes through new rules was seen by politicians as an opportunity to reduce prison populations and move cases through the court process faster through settlements and guilty pleas and so reduce costs and promote efficiency. “But if we value the independence of the courts and access to them as constitutional goods, it’s hard not to be uneasy that the boundaries between executive and judicial responsibility are often not directly confronted,” she said.

“It is not always easy to appreciate that proposals which seem quite innocent or efficient or pragmatic may trample on basic principle,” she said.

This is not the first time the Chief Justice has spoken out. Earlier this year she floated the idea of releasing prisoners early to relieve overcrowding, and suggested punitive sentencing was often not the best option for reform.

At that time Justice Minister, Simon  Power, criticised her for speaking publicly on policy matters. “It is the judiciary’s job to apply the law as set by Parliament,” he said. “This Government was elected on this sentencing policy. Judges are appointed to apply it.”

Co-leader of the Maori Party, Dr Pita Sharples, has welcomed the fresh thinking articulated by the Chief Justice of New Zealand, in her speech.

“I would recommend her speech to all New Zealanders, as a thoughtful account of the ‘fundamentals’ required in a constitutional conversation,” he said.

Commentator Andrea Vance says the aim of the reforms is “to free up thousands of court sitting hours and save about $25 million over five years.”

The reforms had an almost 10-year journey, beginning with a Law Commission report in 2001, a further two reports, 16 discussion papers, the drafting of a bill, and more consultation with the judiciary and lawyers.



Additional reading

News category: New Zealand.

Tags: ,