New Zealand Law Society - Making the justice system better

Making the justice system better

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In his 10 years as convenor of the Law Society's Criminal Law Committee, "there have been quite a number of important law reform issues that have made the system of justice better," says Jonathan Krebs.

Mr Krebs stood down this year as convenor of the committee after serving 10 years in the role, making him one of the longest serving committee convenors.

He joined the committee in 2004, when Philip Morgan QC was convenor. When Mr Morgan stepped down after six years in the role, Mr Krebs took up the reigns.

Photo of Jonathan Krebs
Jonathan Krebs

"I consider it an honour to have convened this committee," he says. "The criminal law in any country, and New Zealand is no different, tends to occupy a disproportionate chunk of media attention, and so any sensational cases or any sensational developments in the criminal law are usually spread over all the media and often require urgent comment.

"It's certainly been a high profile role. One of the things I have found most satisfying is my public media role concerning issues involving criminal law.

"The media want to report it, and often they want to have an independent person give some sort of commentary, or explanation as to the various viewpoints.

"A lot of times I have been called at the last minute – usually at 9 o'clock on a Sunday night for Morning Report on Monday morning, or something like that – to give an explanation as to various legal principles or what a particular legal stance might mean.

"I have really enjoyed translating complex legal situations and principles into layman's terms. I think in straight lines and simple terms and so it is easy. I try to express things in terms I might use to explain it to my mum."

Concerning the development of the law, there have been "many times when we've seen submissions we have written find their way into the regulations or rules or even the statutes," he says.

Very challenging

"It has been very challenging at times. I've been to the select committee I don't know how many times to represent the Law Society and to present the Law Society views on various things.

"On one occasion I went on 36 hours' notice when the government wanted to pass retrospective and retroactive legislation following the Supreme Court decision in the Urewera case."

The legislation aimed to retrospectively validate illegal activity undertaken by the New Zealand Police and thereby effectively quash the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law as it stood at the time of the Urewera raids.

Mr Krebs, Human Rights and Privacy Law Committee Convenor Andrew Butler and Rule of Law Committee member Grant Illingworth QC went to the select committee to make submissions on the legislation the government was proposing under urgency. "That was very challenging," Mr Krebs says.

One of the big successes during his decade at the committee's helm came when the then Minister of Justice Simon Power decided to drop proposals to require defendants to declare before trial the elements of their defence.

"I am deeply opposed, philosophically opposed, to any erosion of the right to silence for any defendant," Mr Krebs says. "I saw that [the requirement to declare pre-trial the elements of a defence] as a very blatant and dramatic erosion of the right to silence, as did the committee, as did almost every lawyer in the country.

"We made strong submissions against that." The provisions were in the proposed Criminal Procedure legislation.

Something very positive

The submissions, however, "fell on deaf ears up until the night before the third reading in Parliament. It might even have been the morning of the third reading when I went up to the Minister's office. Christine Grice came with me, along with Garry Collin, the Chair of the Family Law Section at the time.

"The three of us sat around with the Minister for about an hour and a half arguing about one or two other issues, but in particular that issue.

"The minister said at his retirement dinner that it was as a result of things that I had said to him at that meeting that he went down to the floor of the house and, at the third reading, he took those clauses out of the bill.

"That was because we had pointed out that it was a breach of the Bill of Rights Act, it was a breach of fundamental human rights, and we would be one of the few Western countries to follow that course."

"... I was very, very proud to know that that was something very positive that I had done."

Simon Power removing those clauses requiring declaration of the elements of a defence was probably the highlight of his time as chair, Mr Krebs says.

Like playing for a draw

Another submission which turned out to be successful was the Law Society's opposition to the Sentencing Council proposals.

Mr Krebs likens that to "playing for a draw in a cricket match. We went in and batted out and batted out and batted out until bad light stopped play – the government changed."

With the change of administration in 2008, the Sentencing Council has been put aside "and I hope that it never sees the light of day again".

"Anything that fetters a judge's discretion is wrong in principle," Mr Krebs says.

"We think that tariff cases established by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court are appropriate and helpful. They are judge-made law. But anything that is in the hands of the executive in terms of judicial discretion is just wrong and is blurring the constitutional lines. We took a very stern and principled position on that."

One area where the committee was not successful was in its opposition to the abolition of the partial defence of provocation.

What this has meant is that there is now a "gap in the law", because New Zealand doesn't have provisions such as degrees of murder or diminished responsibility defences. This is a gap that "all other western jurisdictions have filled in some way," Mr Krebs says.

The Criminal Law Committee "are not advocates for defendants. We are simply advocates for lawyers.

"We have the opportunity to argue from our standpoint in the system as to changes that ought not to be made and changes that ought to be made to make our system of justice better."

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