End Of An Era At The Supreme Court

Registrar Gordon Thatcher retired from the Supreme Court, effective 1 May, after more than 30 years as a state sector employee.   Kieron McCarron (pictured) is Thatcher’s temporary replacement.Kieron McCarron

Mr Thatcher was named in February 2004 as the first Registrar of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.  He leaves a 12 year legacy of low key and dutiful professionalism, but one tainted by judicial comment and action in his final couple years.

In a 23 September 2015 letter to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, Supreme Court judge Willy Young threw Thatcher under the bus, asserting the Court’s failure to address two applications filed 2 years and 11 months earlier was due to Mr Thatcher’s failure to present them.  Thatcher had claimed repeatedly during the period that one or both of the applications were “with the judges”.  Informed court observers considered Thatcher’s account the more truthful.

Two judicial reviews challenging Mr Thatcher’s refusal to make some judgments and filings public (one by publisher Vince Siemer) were struck out by the High Court on the ground Registrars are only accountable to the judges on the Court.

In December 2015, the five judges of the Supreme Court convened privately on their own initiative under cover of a prior-concluded appeal (Greer v Smith) to rule access to Supreme Court records could be barred by an unreported un-appealable Minute of a single judge.  Previously Registrar Thatcher had grappled with meeting his judicial masters’ demand to prevent access to the record, stating in September 2013 that “legal advice” prevented him from allowing access to public court records other than the judgments already published on the Supreme Court website.

Mr Thatcher, responding to a request by kiwisfirst at 5 pm on his last day of work (29 April) stated by email “Section 17 of Public Records Act is being complied with by maintaining a public register.”  Five days earlier he had advised, “It is not the normal practice of the court to put decisions of this nature on the website.”  His final email was in reply to the question of what he meant by “decisions of this nature”.

The Supreme Court was created by legislation in 2003 to replace the Privy Council as New Zealand’s final appellate court.  Its pledge was more accessible and transparent justice for New Zealanders.

In accord with recent Registrar appointments, Thatcher’s job is likely to fall to a current employee of the Office of the Chief Justice or Judicial Office for Higher Courts.  McCarron has worked in both.  The trend marks an intentional policy shift by the powerful and secretive Rules Committee to appoint registrars with legal training and proven allegiances to judges on the Court they serve.