The Pacific Lawyers Association is concerned at removal of court funding for cultural reports prepared under section 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002.
“The decision to cut funding will detrimentally impact our Pacific Island communities who are disproportionately over-represented in the New Zealand criminal justice system generally, and particularly in the prison population,” Association President Tania Sharkey says.
The section 27 reports recognise that sentencing can consider and reflect an offender’s cultural background. The reports are a way to put information about offenders’ cultural backgrounds before a sentencing Judge.
Ms Sharkey acknowledged that there has been an increase in the number of section 27 cultural reports being obtained, brought about by an increased awareness from lawyers and the judiciary of the benefits the reports provide when imposing a sentence.
“Cultural reports provide a Judge with an understanding of mitigating factors when reaching a sentencing decision. Judges have a statutory duty to consider an offender’s whanau and cultural background, and to consider how that has affected their particular offending,” she says.
“The flexibility the 2002 Act provides in sentencing processes and principles means there can be a reconciliation between the ‘traditional’ criminal justice system and the precepts of Māori and Pacific customary practices through these reports in trying to fit appropriate sentences to Māori and Pacific offenders.”
“Without funding for section 27 cultural reports, offenders will be at a significant disadvantage and will be denied access to justice. This cost-cutting measure will erode an offender’s rights to have their cultural background considered at sentencing because they will not be able to afford a report writer who can give the Court information directly relevant to the imposition of a more appropriate sentence.
"It is our understanding that legal aid may be available for section 27 cultural reports, but not as a preapproved grant. It is subject to an amendment application process which is a timely and costly measure. We are therefore concerned for those in our community who exceed the threshold for legal aid funding yet cannot afford to fund a report privately. The disparity between those who can afford a cultural report from an expert writer against those who cannot, results in a growing justice gap."
Ms Sharkey says the Association is very concerned at the lack of consultation over the decision to remove court funding, given the far-reaching consequences. She says it recently contacted the Minister of Justice with its concerns, but has yet to receive a response.