On Q+A this morning, Justice Minister Simon Power flew a kite on some possible changes to the justice system.
The first was raising the severity threshold at which defendants can elect trial by jury. Currently, if you are tried for a crime with a maximum sentence in excess of 3 months on prison you can elect to have a jury; Power wants to look at raising that to three years. He said that currently people were waiting a year for trial in district courts and this would cut out 1,000 jury trials a year. However, he could not give a figure on how much that would actually speed up trials (nor did he say how much faster a judge only trial is than a jury one or what percentage of just trials we are talking about eliminating here). It’s not something I’m reflexively against. The jury system has a lot of problems and other countries like Australia have higher thresholds.
The second change Power floated was allowing convictions (or dismissals) in absentia if defendants fail to turn up without good reason. OK, superficially it seems nice and ‘tough on crime’ and I don’t really see a big human rights issue if defendants just don’t bother showing up. However, the immediate thought is that, as with the government’s RMA reforms, this will actually lead to more court hearings as convictions in absentia are appealed on grounds that there was a good reason for the no-show. Again, Power failed to demonstrate any need for this measure because he couldn’t supply a number for how many cases would be affected per year and couldn’t identify how much time the court system would save on cases.
Finally, Power suggested fining lawyers and perhaps disallowing them from claiming legal aid if they tried to drag out thee trial process with vexatious hearings. Nothing wrong with that in principle but devil is the detail here – you have to be very careful to make sure you’re not infringing on the right to a fair trail and we should err on the side of that right. Once again, Power didn’t actually have any facts to show there is a large problem or that this is an effective solution to it. In fact, it would probably just opening up a whole new avenue for appeals and court cases. Laila Harre’s idea of a public defender’s office is much better. It removes the temptation to ‘clip the ticket’ on legal aid for lawyers by changing the incentives. But this government is ideologically opposed to government-based solutions, so I can’t see it happening.
It was interesting that when Power referred to the drivers of crime conference the only driver he came up with was alcohol. He’s not looking fundamental enough. You’ve got to ask why some people turn to substance abuse and others don’t. The real driver of crime is poverty. Unfortunately, Power doesn’t seem to have any plan for addressing that as a way to reduce crime.
Power’s ideas may well have merit but his inability to show any evidence of that is a worry and part of a trend in how his government governs. Call it faith-based policy – National believes its policies will work based on assumptions and doesn’t do the evidence gathering and modelling that you expect in good decision-making. Ultimately, all Power’s ideas are to make the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff more efficient. We won’t really see a reduction in crime (and the strain on the legal system) unless the government is willing to make poverty a law and order issue.