The Supreme Court has begun to fulfil the vision of those who argued for its establishment, New Zealand's Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann says.
Dame Helen Winkelmann has been sworn in at a ceremony in the Supreme Court, to become our 13th Chief Justice.
Addressing the court, she said the Supreme Court has woven the history of our nation into important judgments concerning the status of the Treaty.
"It has provided access to justice. A far greater number of cases have been decided before this court, particularly in the criminal justice jurisdiction, than was ever possible when our final court resided in Downing Street, London," she said.
"The creation of the Supreme Court was itself the fulfilment of a vision. A vision that important legal matters, including those related to the Treaty of Waitangi, should be resolved with an understanding of New Zealand's conditions, history and traditions. A further desire was to provide access to justice; New Zealanders would no longer have to travel across oceans to argue cases before judges, some of whom had never touched the soil of our land or seen its rivers, mountains and forests."
Dame Helen said that as Chief Justice and the presiding member of the Supreme Court she expected the court would continue to decide cases in a way fit for the nation "drawing upon the richness of our two founding cultures, and utilising the intellectual wealth and creativity to be found amongst our profession and in our diverse society."
The importance of courthouses
Being head of the judiciary did not, however, as was sometimes thought, involve making resourcing decisions. Providing resources to the courts in the form of safe and effective courtrooms and systems was the responsibility of the Executive arm of government, although the judiciary had a least a voice in those resourcing decisions.
There was one comment only that she would make about the resourcing of the courts. The effective administration of justice depends on effective human interaction, she said.
"Not all but many of the interactions need to be on a face-to-face basis. The presence of courthouses in which lawyers can meet with their clients and in which judges can see and talk to defendants in person is a holding thread in our justice system. Courthouses represent the presence of law in towns throughout New Zealand. The people who work within the courts are leaders of their community. They are a source of knowledge as to how the system works, and for those who do not have the means to pay for legal advice, Sometimes they are the only source of knowledge about the law."
One of the speakers before Dame Helen delivered her address was Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly. Dame Helen noted that it was a small departure from convention to have a person who is not a lawyer speak at such a ceremonial event.
"But Mr Farrelly was invited to speak so that voices not usually heard in our courts are represented on this day. A day in which we think and speak of our hopes and expectations for the administration of justice. He reminded us to think of those who are marginalised, who are marginalised because they can't engage with the social and economic frameworks of our society for whatever reason - and it's most often poverty, sometimes disability, ethnicity, or, as he identified, the experience of trauma in their lives.
"Without the ability to have their voices heard, the marginalised are vulnerable for exploitation and abuse. We frequently see those who live in poverty in the criminal jurisdiction of the courts but seldom in the civil jurisdiction. But those in the lower socio-economic brackets have very real and often very complex legal needs. Lacking economic power, the poor - perhaps more than any other part of our society - need and should be afforded the law's protection."
Troubling obstacles to access to justice
There are significant and troubling obstacles to the achievement of access to justice, Dame Helen said. Without knowledge of the law, many don't know they have a problem with which the law can help them.
"The cost of legal representation is so great that it is only the well-to-do who can afford a lawyer to represent them in the court. And that really is a substantial challenge for the profession. There are few lawyers practising civil legal aid and fewer still in areas of need and the reasons for that problem are complex. For those who decide to go it alone and attempt to represent themselves, there is still a considerable cost barrier of court fees and the difficulty of court procedure.
"The solution to many of these problems lies beyond the control of the judiciary but ... the judiciary cannot shy away from them. As Chief Justice I can use occasions such as this to highlight the issues and where I can be of assistance, I will support the work of the profession and the community in removing the barriers that stand in the way of those who would seek the shelter of the law."
Many in attendance
The swearing-in ceremony was attended by a who's who of the legal profession and judiciary. Those in attendance included the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, the Heads of Bench (with Deputy Chief Māori Land Court Judge Caren Fox in the absence of Chief Māori Land Court Judge Wilson Isaac), Justice Minister Andrew Little, Attorney-General David Parker, the Chief Justices of New South Wales and Victoria, and most of New Zealand's senior courts judiciary. Retiring Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias was also present.
Proceedings began with a Pōwhiri delivered by representatives of the mana whenua, Te Āti Awa. The senior Supreme Court judge Sir William Young administered the oath of office. Dame Helen took the Oath of Allegiance and the Judicial Oath in English and te reo Māori.
Access to justice was a strong theme of all the speeches made. Attorney-General David Parker noted that the appointment of Dame Helen and her predecessor Dame Sian - the first two women to be appointed Chief Justice - was "an indication that the ledger is balancing towards equality".
New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck said Dame Helen's appointment had been fully supported and warmly welcomed by the legal profession.
"We have a lot to be proud of when thinking about our country and the vital role our judiciary has played, and will continue to play, in ensuring that we continue to strongly and fearlessly uphold the rights and values of New Zealanders and in particular the right to have access to justice," she said.
Ms Beck pointed to the 2014 Ethel Benjamin address which Dame Helen delivered and in which she called for a greater commitment to access to justice for all.
"Our country's strong standing and international rankings have diverted us from an uncomfortable truth. That in our country, we have increasingly large numbers of our citizens who are powerless when it comes to a core fundamental right - access to justice. We have a growing mass of people who are excluded from the system that is in place to protect us. The judiciary and the legal profession cannot shy away from the challenges we are currently facing to access to justice in New Zealand.”
New Zealand Bar Association President Kate Davenport QC said pressure on the courts was a problem the new Chief Justice would have to grapple with.
“The most pressing question is how can all New Zealanders get a fair deal? A right to be heard is of no use if you cannot afford to exercise it.
“The challenge for the executive and the profession is to ensure that all those cases who are legitimate and who with within the criteria set out within the relevant legislation can turn to our courts from the lowest to the highest for determination of their case without facing debilitating barriers.”
The event was live streamed and can be watched here. Dame Helen noted this, commenting that the important ideas and concepts, and the expectations that had been addressed to her as the incoming Chief Justice could be heard by those beyond the four walls of the courtroom.
"And, of course, there will exist a record of my words today. That means, that when in the future, I hand over to the 14th Chief Justice, I can be measured against the ideas and ideals of which I have spoken."