Posted On: Sunday, 8 April 2012


9 April 2012
The Ministry of Justice last week responded to an Official Information Act request with a declaration that "the courts are not within the scope of the Official Information Act 1982". It was stated that government disclosure regarding the extent judges suck of the public teat threatens their independence.

The OIA request by kiwisfirst sought last fiscal year's expenditures for the Supreme Court and a breakdown of fringe benefits paid each Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judge.

Despite claiming immunity from the OIA, Acting General Manager of Higher Courts Rajesh Chhana revealed generally that Supreme Court judges spent $91,221 on taxis and limousines last year, while the Court of Appeal judges spent $81,140. Chhana refused to disclose judges' international travel expense but did divulge the five Supreme Court judges alone took a "domestic travel entitlement" of "73,122 kms" last year - almost twice the circumference of the Earth. Actual expense or breakdown of this domestic travel was refused "for reasons of privacy and administration".

OIA requests in 2010 disclosed Chief Justice Sian Elias was comped $74,488 in travel expenses that year for her and her husband Hugh Fletcher - one of the wealthiest men in NZ. After sitting on those requests six months, the Ministry provided that disclosure under pressure from the Dominion Post and kiwisfirst, and only after the Chief Justice approved the release. The Ministry still refused to divulge expenditures such as limousines and catered parties at the time.

In addition to labelling disclosure of judicial perks exempt, the Ministry of Justice took two months to disclose that Supreme Court 2011 expenditures (excluding judges compensation) was $14.96 million.

The Official Information Act is the most recent legislation which the judiciary has exempted itself from in rapid succession since the loss of the Privy Council. Last year, in Atty General v Chapman sc120/2009, the Supreme Court exempted remedy for civil rights breaches by judges provided by section 3 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

In 2008, Justice Ministry Chief Legal Counsel Jeff Orr announced the Judiciary would not comply with the Public Records Act 2005 which required all branches of government to keep accurate records of State business - claiming its practices would be dictated "by custom rather than enactment". Again, the Judiciary - which still largely relies on judicial notes despite several recent scandals where judges were caught altering their notes - claimed that legislative acts which challenged judicial independence were not enforceable.

In 2010, the Judiciary was compelled to reveal its Guidelines for Judicial Conduct, a 16 page set of rules adopted for itself which were touted internationally as demonstrating accountability but had been kept secret domestically. Even in this attempt at self-regulation, independence of judge from accountability was stressed by declaring in respect to its Guidelines, "the guidance provided in these statements and comments is not intended to be a code of conduct."




In addition to not being bound by their own set of guidelines, New Zealand Judges have now declared themselves exempt from at least three major pieces of legislation which specifically bound them.

Rule changes which came into effect 1 February 2012 also give judges greater discretion to make rulings restricting court proceedings if they consider it is in "the interests of justice" to do so. What constitutes "interests of justice" is for each judge to determine as no guidelines are provided for exercising the discretion.

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