Saturday, June 17, 2017

New Zealand's accountability deficit

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 16.)

When did you last hear of a judge resigning because honour demanded it, or to atone for a catastrophic error?

The most recent example I can think of is former District Court judge Robert Hesketh, who did the honourable thing by quitting in 1997 after pleading guilty to charges arising from fraudulent expense claims.

His fellow judge Martin Beattie faced similar charges but chose to fight them and was acquitted.

Beattie claimed $10,000 worth of expenses for hotel accommodation when in fact he had stayed in his own home. A jury appeared to accept Beattie’s defence that he thought he was entitled to claim the expenses and had never been told otherwise.

I believe the court of public opinion reached its own verdict, and it wasn’t the one the jury arrived at.

Beattie subsequently paid the money back, which seemed an acknowledgement that he wasn’t entitled to it in the first place, but he refused to resign despite being asked to do so by then Justice Minister Doug Graham. 

He was subsequently moved from frontline court duties, taking up an appointment as the Accident Compensation Appeal Authority. But he retained his status, and presumably his judge’s salary too.

Move on now to 2011 and the tragic murder of Christie Marceau. All murders are tragic but this one especially so, because it was committed by a man who was out on bail when clearly he represented a threat to the 18-year-old North Shore woman.

The police knew Christie was at risk from Akshay Chand and so, apparently, did Judge Barbara Morris, who had twice ruled that he should be kept behind bars for an earlier attack on her.

But then Chand came before Judge David McNaughton. He wrote a letter to the judge saying he was remorseful and wanted to apologise. He later told police that his sole purpose in writing the letter was to get bail so he could murder Marcie.

The ruse worked. The judge bailed Chand to live in a house just 300 metres from his intended victim – this, despite Christie’s own plea that he be kept behind bars.

Thirty-two days later Christie was dead – stabbed repeatedly in a frenzied attack by Chand, who was subsequently found not guilty on the grounds of insanity.  

Clearly, judges are human and prone to error. We can't expect them to have  the wisdom of Solomon. But some mistakes have such profoundly catastrophic consequences that the public is entitled to expect an act of atonement.

In the Christie Marceau case, a contributory factor was the apparent failure to include on Chand’s court file a record of Judge Morris’s earlier decisions to refuse bail and her cautionary comments about Chand’s mental state. Even so, there was ample evidence to justify him being kept in custody.

Once the enormity of Judge McNaughton’s mistake became obvious, it would have been fitting for him to step down. Some of us might wonder how he managed to sleep at night, let alone continue to sit on the Bench. But he did.

If it’s true that Judge Morris’s notes were never included on Chand’s court file, I also wonder whether the clerk responsible for the oversight ever faced any consequences – which brings me to the point of this column.

From top to bottom, New Zealand seems to suffer from an accountability deficit – a stubborn unwillingness by people in positions of public responsibility to fall on their swords when they are found to have behaved either badly or incompetently.

We’ve been reminded of McNaughton’s terrible mistake this week because an inquest is finally being conducted into Christie Marceau’s death. But there have been plenty of other examples.

In this column several weeks ago I referred to the e-coli outbreak caused by contaminated tap water in Havelock North. No heads rolled, despite 5000 people getting sick.

Pike River? The same. The collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch? Ditto.

The builders of leaky homes have largely escaped punishment and no one seems to carry the can when supposedly state-of-the-art, earthquake-resistant buildings are rendered uninhabitable while much older buildings are undamaged.

Only this week it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development spent nearly $300,000 of our money in legal costs on what was clearly a butt-covering exercise after a woman killed herself following an accusation of benefit fraud which was found to be unsubstantiated.

One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing ... and then it's back to business as usual.

1 comment:

Graham Hill said...

Thank you for this excellent article. Many (not all) in legal profession are prone to an ethos of unaccountability or non accountability too.