Supreme Courts building costs $260,000 per hearing

Repeated Official Information Act requests by kiwisfirst over the last year have pried only limited information from the New Zealand Ministry of Justice regarding ongoing costs of the exorbitantly-priced but inauspiciously designed Supreme Court building (pictured).  The official cost to taxpayers is $80.7 Million, but the true figure is likely closer to $100 million.  This equates to $25 for every man, woman and child in New Zealand for construction of a building which is the venue for less than 50 hearings a year.  But, as kiwisfirst learned, this “start up” cost appears to be only the tip of the cost iceberg.

The Supreme Court of New Zealand replaced the “user pays” the Untied Kingdom based Privy Council as the last court by right for New Zealanders in 2004.  Until Prince William officially opened the Wellington monument to New Zealand’s five highest judges in January of this year, the nascent court operated out of the High Court building 200 metres up the street.

As most of New Zealand now knows, the Supreme Court palace has become the recent backdrop for judicial scandal, with revelations that Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson tossed appeals for his bank and business partner, while Chief Supreme Court Justice Sian Elias tried to cover it up, in part because Wilson J threatened to expose her judicial indiscretions.  Two lawyers who unsuccessfully sought to convince Wilson to resign – Colin Carruthers QC and Jim Farmer QC – have ironically, and respectively, been hired by Judge Wilson to quash the inquiry into his misconduct and publicly cried for the abolition of the Office of the Judicial Conduct Commissioner as a judicial oversight body.  Mr Farmer claimed in June that the oversight body, which dismissed over 400 complaints against judges in the four years of its existence before recommending its first panel inquiry in the Wilson debacle, is being used as a vehicle by disgruntled litigants to unduly punish judges.

So it would be fair to say these six judges (the court was increased by one this year) need a $100M palace to feel good about themselves.

Chief Justice Sian Elias personally vetted responses to OIA requests regarding ongoing maintenance expenditures.  Repeated refusals to provide detail on expenditures were based upon a claimed lack of records on a range of costs from “security screeners” to “catering”.  Even without this the annual budget provided through 30 June 2010 amounted to $2,658,495 – not including the $4,000,000 paid out in judge salaries and perks.   The $2.7M did detail, among other things, $942,282 in staff compensation and $149,099 for “travel/meetings”.  “Rent” for the horrendously expensive building in the heart of downtown Wellington is listed as $150,652 annually, indicating aggressive accounting which obscures the true cost to taxpayers.

Allowing for a cap rate of 8%, New Zealand taxpayers are paying roughly $262,000 for each appeal heard in the purpose-built building.  By comparison, the Privy Council cost the taxpayers nothing.

What has the taxpayer gotten for their money?  There are two ways of looking at this: from an international perspective and by the quality of justice it provides domestically.  By international standards, the decisions coming from the New Zealand Supreme Court are an embarrassment.  They are regularly given short shrift as precedent in English law-based jurisdictions around the world.  It is, as many lawyers have cited, a result of a lack of intellectual talent on the bench.  But it is also a reflection of a dysfunctional court where the law often takes a back seat to judicial capriciousness and unrestrained arrogance.

Domestically, the situation is worse.  The incestuous nature of judicial appointments has combined with an unabashed propensity to put personal loyalties before the law and justice.  The result is a morass of rulings which are already undermining the law and future of New Zealand.  The problem is that most of us will not see the effect of this until it is too late – after businesses pull out of New Zealand because it is a legally unsafe place to conduct business.