Has our criminal justice system been compromised?

12 September 2016

The right to a fair trial in New Zealand is being undermined in a variety of ways, with the public's right to a fair and properly funded criminal justice system also being compromised, says long-serving judge the Honourable Sir Ron Young.

At the annual Harkness Henry Lecture at the University of Waikato last week, Sir Ron said this vulnerability has become apparent through a variety of sources including reduced legal aid for defence lawyers, reduced availability of money for expert witnesses for the defence, reduced funding for crown solicitors and crown law, the effect of the sensible sentencing trust lobbying and some recent legislative changes.

He said the contribution of the media to public understanding or misunderstanding of judicial decisions, and the Police diversion/warning system and community justice system in Christchurch were also factors.

Reduced legal aid

After 26 years on the bench, Sir Ron said the cost cutting inherent in the Legal Services Act 2011 may have put a fair trial in jeopardy. A reduction in legal aid payments over five years was achieved mostly by reducing legal aid payments to lawyers through a fixed-fee regime and by the widening of the public defender service to cover up to 50% of cases in some areas, he said.

“At $96 an hour, no lawyer is going to get rich. So the question becomes, which lawyers will act for these defendants at these rates?

“Will the lawyers be prepared to do all that is necessary to properly conduct a trial, particularly if that means over a year, hundreds of hours of unpaid work?”

As a result, he said inexperienced and sometimes inadequate lawyers were undertaking criminal cases well above their competence level, and fewer experienced lawyers were taking legal aid cases.

“This matters because a fair trial matters. The justice system relies upon confidence in the system. Each time we let a defendant down, one leaves court with a justified sense of grievance because he or she hasn’t had a fair go at trial.”

A fair trial

Sir Ron said the responsibility to challenge the reduced legal aid and other factors falls on the lawyers and legal academics.

“I challenge senior lawyers and academics to speak out about the changes which have the potential to undermine the criminal process and the right to a fair trial, because nobody else will.”

The Faculty thanks Sir Ron for his address and Harkness Henry Lawyers for their continued support.

Watch Sir Ron’s Harkness Henry Lecture.