A Glimpse Behind Sick Justice

It could have been one of those inconsequential $100,000 pig-fests on the public teat.  What made this one different is most of the government porkers got sick. brigid corcoran

As is typical of judicial matters in New Zealand, 52 of New Zealand’s 62 top judges attended a secret retreat with a secret agenda at Chateau Tongariro in mid-March.   They received the off-season special room rate of $182.60 per night.  They feasted on the finest cuisine New Zealand had to offer at taxpayer expense.  They were officially there to be “educated”.  On what, we have no clue.

In an ironic stroke of poetic justice, many got sick.  Had they not, we would never have known these judges being paid almost a half-million dollars per year were getting such off-schedule perks.

Thank Brigid Corcoran (pictured) for keeping judges’ field trips secret.  She is ‘Director’ of ‘Judicial Office’ – whatever that is – as well as ‘Project Manager’ for ‘Office of the Chief Justice’ according to her LinkedIn profile.   Conflict of interest?  Not in New Zealand.   She is one of many government “double dippers” with suspiciously conflicting roles.  This is particularly true in the Ministry of Justice where her colleague Gavin Duffy works for the judges and is also ‘manager’ of the Office of the Judicial Conduct Commissioner which receives and investigates misconduct complaints against judges.

An Official Information Act request to Ms Corcoran concerning her functions appears to have been ignored.  In 2014, Acting Chief Legal Counsel Tania Warburton declined a request for information on Mr Duffy’s government compensation by official roles citing privacy rights.

After Tongariro scores of Kiwis, some waiting more than a year for a court date, paid the price, with Court dockets vacated “due to unforeseen circumstances”.   Judges too sick from too much education to sit on cases which had been scheduled.

Another Official Information Act request to the Ministry of Justice saw Brigid intercepting.  She conceded the judge conference cost New Zealand taxpayers $98,365 or almost $2,000 per judge attendee.  Her response claimed no invitation had been sent to the judges.  She then refused to provide the ‘official agenda’, on the ground “The agenda for the conference is not provided as information relating to the educational and professional development of judges is generally not made publically available.” 

Pure New Zealand Judiciary.  An official agenda is exempt from an Official Information Act request.  A plainly worded statute once again does not apply to NZ judges.

After an appeal to Rodney MP Mark Mitchell’s office Ms Corcoran promised to reconsider and provide a new OIA response last Friday but failed to do so.  A follow up call and email to her this week were not responded to.

To those who see a case of déjà vu, it is not an abstract feeling.  In 2012, Fairfax reported New Zealand’s 204 judges had racked up $18 million in travel expenses over the previous 3 years.  The worst offender was one of Ms Corcoran’s government bosses, Chief Justice Sian Elias, who socked the taxpayer $74,488 for one year’s travel despite being married to one of New Zealand’s richest men, Hugh Fletcher.  Her off-schedule taxpayer-funded travel alone exceeded what 93% of New Zealanders earned than year.  Oh, and the taxpayer apparently footed some of the travel bill for ultra-rich Hugh too.

Sian Elias CJ had initially refused to disclose her taxpayer-funded largess in 2012.  Despite openness or accountability being enforceable against judges, Dame Sian eventually released these figures after her refusal was publicised.  Her original refusal revealed an above-the-law entitlement most NZ judges feel; the information was deemed ‘judicial information rather than official information’ and, therefore, not bound by the Official Information Act.

The worrisome thing is Dame Sian is perhaps the most respected judge to sit on the New Zealand Supreme Court since its formation in 2003.  What does this say about her judicial colleagues?  Sorry, but there are some things in New Zealand that even the denizens of the law cannot speak about and one of those things is wayward judges.

Last week in a Wellington High Court case, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson raised the legal argument that 4.3 the Cabinet Manual 2008, which requires he report government actions which do not comply with existing law to Cabinet, does not apply to actions by judicial officers.  He will ask for a hearing on 9 May to seek such a ruling.  Watch this space for his reasoning why this is so.