New Zealand Law Society - Law Society seeks public understanding of lawyers roles in terrorism sentencing

Law Society seeks public understanding of lawyers roles in terrorism sentencing

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The sentencing of the man who carried out the Christchurch terrorism attack in 2019 has begun in the Christchurch High Court today. It is the first time in New Zealand that someone will be sentenced under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 and where the Court may consider the appropriateness of a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Tiana Epati

“Both of these legal ‘firsts’ highlight the significance of this case for New Zealand’s criminal justice system,” says President of the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa, Tiana Epati.

Brenton Harrison Tarrant will be sentenced on 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and a charge of committing a terrorist act. The sentencing is expected to last for four days. A significant number of victim impact statements are due to be heard and many relatives have travelled from overseas to be in Court.

“This will be a testing week for all involved and my aroha goes out to the victims and their families”, adds Ms Epati.

To safeguard the integrity of the sentencing process and to assist the court with a defendant who is self-represented, the court has appointed two lawyers:

  • a lawyer as independent counsel assisting the court (sometimes referred to as amicus curiae – “friend of the court” in Latin), and
  • a lawyer as standby counsel.

In the New Zealand justice system, every defendant has the right to represent themselves by making submissions to the Court or to seek the assistance of appointed standby counsel who can then make submissions and present evidence on their behalf.

The lawyer appointed as standby counsel can assist a self-represented defendant as much or as little as the defendant chooses. If the defendant wishes, they can ask standby counsel to make oral submissions on their behalf. Standby counsel may also file written submissions ahead of the sentencing, addressing the aggravating and mitigating features of the case.

Even if the defendant does not use standby counsel and continues to self-represent, the lawyer appointed as independent counsel to assist the court will help the court on relevant sentencing law and its application to the facts of the case. The lawyer appointed to perform this role is independent from both the defendant and the Crown. His or her role is to assist the court.

“The lawyers who will be acting in these roles throughout the sentencing are doing so because it is their professional duty”, says Ms Epati.

“They will no doubt be feeling the strain of the world’s attention, and the fact that they are there should be commended and not criticised.”

“Despite the extreme nature of this case justice must be served. This can only happen when there is competent and experienced counsel on both sides. The Law Society stands behind all the lawyers involved in this immensely challenging case.”