Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Slowing Down Justice


In the early 1880s a former mayor of Thames came home unexpectedly one evening and discovered his wife in flagrante with a local bank clerk. She claimed to be the victim of attempted rape, but the police knew of her affair with the guy and wouldn't prosecute. The husband naively believed his wife's story and took a private prosecution. Five weeks after the alleged offence, an Auckland jury acquitted the bank clerk, leaving the husband confused. The story has prurient interest, but I mention it to illustrate how swiftly the justice system once worked in this country. In May 1895 the baby farmer Minnie Dean was arrested for infanticide and hanged in August, too swiftly one would think. Eighty years later it was still possible to get court fixtures reasonably quickly. No longer. The police seem unable to concentrate on what once would have been regarded as serious matters such as burglaries and car theft. The senior High Court judge said the other day that some cases now wait five years for a hearing. Eighteen months after Taito Phillip Field's activities were first revealed the police are still questioning him. Nothing has been heard about who stole Don Brash's emails although an offence was obviously committed. The Stephen Wallace case in Waitara dragged on for years, incurring huge expense to taxpayers, but the coroner has still not reported seven years after his death.

Why have so many elements of today's justice system seized up like arthritic joints? As always with such questions, many factors are involved. Most are linked back to political failure. Sure there has been a world-wide decline in standards of behaviour. Religious fear that once deterred some from crime has declined. Everywhere in the so-called civilised world more people offend. Partly it's because welfare has subsidised the growth of a burgeoning underclass that pushes up rates of offending. The prison system turns out inmates all ready to return. In the 1980s and 1990s levels of reported crime rose rapidly while the police's clearance rate slipped. Politicians sometimes claim that reported crime has levelled off, but everyone knows that a growing number of victims don't bother to report because they know the police won't do anything. Problems proliferate; society looks the other way.

Police practices have changed, too. In my early political life we wanted more bobbies on the beat, believing that higher visibility for the strong arm of the law would deter. No more. Many community constabularies have shut up shop. One usually sees police encased in cars. Moreover, they are more bureaucratic. Paper is their favoured process. And as their responsiveness and their solution rates languish, public confidence ebbs. Picking on the police has become a media growth industry that only makes the force cover its tracks with a bigger paper trail. Their inquiries are excessively prolonged, and then too many officers are tied up with court appearances.

In a world awash with newly graduating lawyers and a surge in legal aid, the court system is blocked. Worse still, some litigants seem to be using the courts to wage what at base are political or personal fights. Weeks of High Court time were devoted recently to a struggle between two sets of competing providers for Auckland's lucrative pathology services. Having failed in negotiations with Air New Zealand, the Engineers' Union now wants the High Court to decide on proposed layoffs. The courts are now being expected to do so many new things that they can't effectively perform what we need of them: dealing quickly with criminal behaviour and with civil suits. The politicians' failure to define in law what they meant by "the principles of the Treaty" has also bogged up the courts, most litigants using legal aid.

We've tried more police, more judges, more prisons and more crisis intervention officers, but our justice system nears a standstill. Many civil litigants have no hope of an early fixture, and dates for serious trials and sentencing take far too long. Altering welfare incentives and adopting a ruthless policy towards gangs would undoubtedly increase confidence amongst those who struggle to get ahead in life. And tackling an out-of-control prison culture. But a major inquiry into what the public might reasonably expect of the police could also open up to scrutiny an assortment of connected problems within the justice system and help us identify solutions. Can either political party get its head around the fact that justice delayed is not only justice denied, but is a constant threat to basic community values?