Andrew Little was appointed Minister of Justice in the new Government at the end of 2017. He grew up in New Plymouth before heading to Victoria University of Wellington to study law. A diversion into student politics saw him become President of the Victoria University Students’ Association and of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations. After graduating with a law degree he became a lawyer with the Engineers’ Union before his appointment as EPMU national secretary in 2000.
Mr Little entered Parliament in 2011 as a Labour list MP. He was Opposition justice spokesperson from February 2013 to November 2014 and from August to October 2017. He was Leader of the Opposition from 2014 to 2017. As well as being the Minister of Justice, Mr Little is also Minister for Courts, Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, and Minister responsible for the Government Communications and Security Bureau, the Security Intelligence Service and for Pike River Re-Entry.
Andrew Little lives in Island Bay, Wellington with his wife Leigh and their son Cam.
LawTalk asked Mr Little about his entry into the law and his objectives as Minister of Justice.
Why did you study law?
Because I have a passion for late nights, caffeine, and the Socratic Method.
In all seriousness, it was always going to be law. I grew up in a politically charged environment – the Muldoon years. I was 16 when the Springbok Tour divided the nation, and it was hard to ignore the rampant injustice that underpinned so many areas of our society and nationhood.
In particular, two miscarriages of justice shaped my passion for law – that of Derek Bentley and Arthur Allan Thomas. The Bentley case in particular was an example of the failings of a highly punitive system which needed vision and innovation when tackling crime.
So off I went to Victoria University Law School, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to change the world one constitutional law lecture at a time.
Is there anything you wish you’d been told as a student that you had to find out the hard way?
That once you’ve entered student politics, it’s really hard to get out again? And to always pay attention in Professor Quentin-Baxter’s constitutional law class as you never know when his pearls of wisdom might crop up again.
That the high you get from doing an all-nighter to get your law assignment in on time doesn’t last the whole of the following day.
And of course to drink water before bed, and expand my cuisine beyond instant noodles.
What is one thing you would like to achieve as Minister of Justice?
Criminal justice reform. Our prison system is in chaos at the moment and requires long-term, innovative thinking rather than patchwork remedies. The managerial system that promotes punishment and targets has not worked, and I’ll be working closely with the legal profession, members of the public, and my colleagues to ensure we rebuild a criminal justice system that is fair, humane, and effective.
How can we improve access to justice, and what changes would you like to see in our legal aid system?
The justice gap is something that desperately needs addressing. Equal access to justice is a fundamental tenet of the legal system, and as long as the gap persists I consider this a systemic failure.
Reviewing legal aid entitlements and thresholds to ensure equality and fairness are at the heart of our justice system is one thing. Making sure our courts and tribunals are as user-friendly as possible is another.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing the legal profession in New Zealand?
The last 30 years have seen a shift towards a managerial, target-focused approach to justice. In turn, this has put pressure on legal professionals, court staff, prison staff, and the system as a whole. This approach is not effective for offenders, victims, legal professionals, or members of the public.
The recent attention on sexual harassment in the profession suggests there may be some cultural issues about power and privilege we need to deal with.
What do you think is working or not working as a result of the reforms which were made to the Family Court three years ago?
Public confidence in the Family Court has been under threat since the reforms of 2014. I intend on initiating a comprehensive review of the reforms, with further announcements on this to come imminently. The massive increase in the number of without notice applications tells me people want the assurance of a court-mandated process, even if many of the issues in a separation could be resolved in a mediation with sticking points the subject of a judicial determination.
I would, however, like to acknowledge the arbitrators and mediators who have worked within the FDR system. Since FDR was introduced in 2014, more than 5,000 mediations have been completed. Of the completed mediations 80% have achieved at least some, if not full resolutions as a result of FDR. This is thanks to the tireless, and often under-appreciated work of our arbitrators and mediators across New Zealand.
Are there any other areas in our justice system where you would like to see changes?
For me it’s about the bigger picture – restoring the pillars of equality, fairness, and kindness to the justice system. From access to legal aid, to criminal justice, through to the Family Court, changes are well overdue. I will not be complacent in my approach to justice, and I will not shy away from tackling the hard issues front on.
In a speech to the Law Foundation in December you said you give much less weight to the absolute sovereignty of Parliament and believe there needs to a stronger check and balance on it – “such as might be provided by a written constitution”. Do you think New Zealand should have a written constitution?
My personal view is ‘yes’, but that view is not widely shared amongst my government colleagues. Nevertheless, I think our recently announced intention to legislate for senior courts to declare inconsistencies between legislation and NZBORA along with a requirement for Parliament to then consider such a finding will go a long way to reducing the incidence of Parliament legislating against basic human rights.