New Judicial Conduct Commissioner overwhelmed

After less than six months on the job, Judicial Conduct Commissioner David Gascoigne (pictured) must be having some regrets about taking the position.  He has reported the number of complaints is up 39% over the previous year, while some complaints have been in the system for two years.

Sir David Gascoigne (Judicial Conduct Commissioner)
Sir David Gascoigne (Judicial Conduct Commissioner)

One of these complaints concerns Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson, a case which has resulted in Sir David calling in former Australian Chief Justice Murray Gleeson for a meeting with the parties at his Wellington law office (Minter Ellison) immediately after the opening ceremonies for the new Supreme Court building this Monday (18 January).

The meeting is an extraordinary deviation from the statutory provision of recommending the Attorney General appoint a Judicial Conduct Panel to conduct an inquiry into the Judge’s alleged misconduct.  It seems designed to either avoid the Panel inquiry altogether or to tread cautiously into a virgin process (this would be the first of the almost 500 complaints received since enactment considered worthy of a Panel inquiry).

In this case, this is wise.  The Commissioner would know that Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Judge Wilson are close mates and close former law partners at Bell Gully.  The Attorney General has been a staunch defender of Judge Wilson in the scandal, providing a brief to the Supreme Court as intervener on Judge Wilson’s behalf and stating to at least one fellow MP that he would not abandon his friend.

If the Commissioner can overcome this, there is the issue to consider that the Judicial Conduct Commissioner and Judicial Panel Act calls for the Attorney General to consult with the Chief Justice Sian Elias as to who to appoint to any inquiry panel.  The Chief Justice is a close friend and business partner of Wilson J as well.

While the Wilson drama plays out and puts a drain on the Commissioner’s time, the complaints coming into his office are piling up.  Section 14 of the Act requires the Commissioner to deal promptly with complaints “as soon as practicable after receiving it.”  With the mess left to him by his predecessor, and the numbers of complaints against judges escalating, two years may be the best Mr Gascoigne can muster.