New Zealand Police have been asked to prosecute former Court of Appeal Judge Rhys Harrison for selling legal services without a practising certificate, a criminal offence under s22 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.

A complaint to the New Zealand Law Society was also lodged on 5 April 2018 by a person wishing to remain anonymous while the investigation is ongoing.

The consequence was quick, albeit indecisive.  The former law chambers partner of the man whose wife made the complaint was arrested by police.  A preliminary hearing is scheduled next week to determine what police have in the way of disclosure to support their initial charge of ‘attempting to pervert the course of justice’.

Concurrently former Attorney General Chris Finlaysen is pushing through legislation which would make it a crime to criticize New Zealand judges.  The members bill is expected to be endorsed by the government according to recent press reports which have Justice Minister Andrew Little petitioning Cabinet colleagues to adopt it as a government bill.

Chris Finlaysen appointed or promoted 82% of the current judges in New Zealand during his 9 years as Attorney-General.

Justice Harrison QC retired from the Court of Appeal in February, leaving him without a practising certificate or a judicial warrant.  Neither has stopped Mr Harrison from immediately advertising he had returned to legal practice, including this advert in the New Zealand Law Society monthly magazine LawTalk.

Rhys Harrison QC now charges $7,000 per day plus expenses for his legal services, with a practice particularly focused on mediation and advice.  He earned $469,200/year as a judge and retired with an estimated superannuation fund of $2.54 million, thanks to perhaps the most generous scheme in the world – one which NZ taxpayers pay $7.50 for each dollar contributed by the judge.   Current Justice Minister Andrew Little in 2013 described the scheme as “one of the most generous I have ever heard of”, adding on judicial compensation generally in New Zealand “It’s generous, and irrespective how much we value the important work they do in court, and as part of our constitution, these would be some of the highest incomes for anyone in the country.”

Before his appointment to judge, Mr Harrison defended some of New Zealand’s wealthiest criminals involved in tax scams.  He played a prominent role in the Winebox Inquiry where he had considerable success in suppressing disclosures of complicity, corruption and incompetence within the Serious Fraud Office and Inland Revenue Department.

His last few years on the bench were not kind to the 71-year old Harrison, whose confounding actions embarrassed his fellow judges but nonetheless compelled them to cover up for him.  The retired judge’s rulings became increasingly irrational, including an unreasoned ruling which doubted Court of Appeal judges have jurisdiction to overturn a ruling by the Court of Appeal registrar and another unreasoned ruling that no right of appeal existed against a High Court judge’s Minute refusing to allow filing of a habeas corpus application.

On the bench Harrison J led the recent trend of judges distinguishing judicial ‘minutes’ from ‘judgments’ when refusing appeal rights.  In the examples above Harrison J based his denials of first rights of appeal on the fact denial of court access by Justice Goddard at the High Court had been by an unreported administrative ‘minute’, rather than by ‘judgment’, and the denial of access to the Court of Appeal upon which he sat was by a letter from its Registrar.

High Court Justice Cameron Mander later relied upon the unreported minute of Goddard J to dismiss the habeas corpus. 

Harrison J’s own refusal of appeal against the Goddard J minute was by minute, insulating him from appeal to the Supreme Court.  His momentary lapse when issuing a judgment in the Creser case allowed an appeal to the Supreme Court made on grounds Harrison J suffered from (mental) incapacitation as His Honour mistakenly believed he had no power as a judge to review decisions of his registrar and mistakenly claimed in his minute that the application he dismissed was to “amend” a judgment rather than to “enforce” a judgment.

The refusal of leave by the Supreme Court was telling in how the highest court dealt with the issue and evidence.  After acknowledging “The decision of a Registrar to reject documents is reviewable by a Judge not pursuant to any power in the Rules but simply as part of the inherent jurisdiction of the Judges of the Court of Appeal. All of this is explained in Slavich v R,  by reference to the position of the Supreme Court, an explanation which applies equally to the Court of Appeal.” the Supremes added, “From (Harrison’s minute), it appears that the Judge thought that Mr Creser was challenging the orders made by the Court on 8 October 2003 and did not recognise that his actual challenge was to the form in which those orders were recorded in the sealed judgment dated 14 October 2003.”  Although these two sentences confirmed the factual and legal errors by Harrison, the Supreme Court tacked hard into the wind in proclaiming, “We see no reason to grant leave to appeal. The jurisdictional issues involved have been determined by the judgment of this Court in Slavich v R.   There is no point of general or public importance involved.”

One insider also speculated new Court of Appeal President Stephen Kos was no longer willing to allow Harrison J to pick the appeals he sat on, a practice which Kos’ predecessor, current Supreme Court Justice Ellen France, blindly permitted.

Judges picking their cases to decide is universally considered improper if not unlawful.

To those with means, employing Mr Harrison QC for representation may still be considered good value due to his significant influence within the parochial New Zealand justice system.  However, potential mediation clients may not fair as well given Harrison’s recent and increasingly erratic behaviour and the broadly held view that his diminished mental acuity is not in the same ballpark as his asking price.