New Zealand Law Society - Reading the Riot Act - A 200-year History of Justices of the Peace in New Zealand

Reading the Riot Act - A 200-year History of Justices of the Peace in New Zealand

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Reviewed by Geoff Adlam

New Zealand’s first Justice of the Peace stepped ashore in the Bay of Islands on 14 June 1814. Thomas Kendall was a missionary and his appointment was made by the New South Wales Governor. He was sacked in 1823 by Samuel Marsden but the groundwork had been laid for the establishment of an organised system of justice and community policing in which Justices of the Peace played a crucial role.

The bi-centenary of Kendall’s arrival has been marked by the publication of a history of JPs in this country. The author, Dr Philip Harkness, is himself a JP. Appointed in 1964, like many other JPs he has contributed many years of voluntary unpaid community service and is a life member of the Auckland Justices of the Peace Association.

Interestingly 200 years later it is not possible to say exactly how many JPs there are in this country. Dr Harkness says there are approximately 10,000, of whom 3,000 are not members of one of the 29 district JP associations. While there is a high awareness that JPs are people of some standing in the community, a majority of New Zealanders are probably ignorant of the finer details of their appointment (the nomination of an electorate MP is required), training, duties and history.

The first two chapters of Dr Harkness’ book outline how the role of the ancient “Keepers of the Peace” evolved in New Zealand to meet the dual expectations and needs of Māori and the colonists. Early New Zealand JPs were key players in both keeping the peace and delivery of summary justice. By the 1850s most parts of New Zealand had a Resident Magistrate, appointed from local JPs.

A constant theme throughout the book is the change from lay, community-based courts and justice delivery to a system where those delivering justice are legally-trained professionals. Justices of the Peace are still participants in the court system as trained lay magistrates (“Judicial JPs”) but today only 450 (6%) of all JPs are in this group.

Much of the focus in the last two chapters is on the role of JPs in court proceedings. There is an entertaining (not to JPs probably) account of how Justice Minister John Marshall skilfully managed to sneak legislation through Parliament in 1957 to severely curtail the role of lay magistrates. Since then there has been a move back to greater participation and the events and various reports and findings are covered in some detail. It is clear that some JPs are keen to take increased judicial responsibility and there is no doubt where Dr Harkness sits.

As the author says, the book is not intended as an academic treatise. Rather it is a commemoration of 200 years of Justices of the Peace in New Zealand by charting the events, people and issues. Until it reaches the later part of the 20th century it relies heavily on a number of published histories and commentaries. There are often long quotations from historians such as Alan Ward and Keith Sinclair.

Some closer editing may have assisted. There is a certain amount of repetition, particularly in the sometimes lengthy captions to illustrations which are also repeated in the text. The views of influential Federation President John Noakes are reiterated several times.

The book is an important addition to the small but growing collection of publications which examine the development of New Zealand’s laws and its justice system. An extensive collection of historical illustrations provide an illuminating insight into the people, the publications and the environment through which the number of JPs grew from one to around 10,000.

Reading the Riot Act: A 200-year History of Justices of the Peace in New Zealand, Media Features Ltd, January 2015, 978-0-473295, 160 pages, hardback, $29.95 (GST included and p&h excluded).

Geoff Adlam is the New Zealand Law Society’s Communications Manager.

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