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From the Law Society

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Enhancing our justice system

Lawyers have a very important role to play in helping make Aotearoa/New Zealand a better place for all citizens, individually and collectively. Many of us have been involved in recent initiatives that aim to enhance our justice system.

In this issue of LawTalk, we look at one of these initiatives: Community and Iwi/Marae Justice Panels. These panels currently operate in Christchurch, Gisborne, Manukau and Waiwhetu (Lower Hutt).

The aim of the panels is to better hold offenders to account for less serious offending by engaging them with a community-based, rather than a court-based process. Police officers have the discretion to refer people to a justice panel.

Our experience in Gisborne is that justice panels are providing positive outcomes both for offenders and for their communities. Our experience is that offenders who are dealt with by justice panels are significantly more likely to move on to make much better life choices.

That includes making choices that result in them no longer offending. The result of this is a lower recidivism rate.

Reducing recidivism is not the only advantage either. As well as seeing people take completely new, and more positive, directions in their lives, we are also seeing relationships that were damaged by the offending restored. We have seen people working to mitigate the damage their offending has done, for example by making payment to victims. And these are just some of the outcomes.

Over recent years, we have seen a number of developments that are enhancing our justice system, in particular our criminal justice system. One has been the introduction of justice panels. Another has been the move to develop solution-focused or problem-solving courts, such as alcohol and drug courts.

Initiatives such as this, which – in the words of United States legal academic Professor Susan Daicoff – aim to transform law into a “healing profession” (see, are frequently described as “therapeutic jurisprudence”.

The idea behind therapeutic jurisprudence is that, by altering the forms in which law is practised, the operation of the law can develop so that it can lead to outcomes that are healing and restorative, while at the same time holding people who break the law to account.

Initiatives such as justice panels and problem-solving courts have another advantage also, and this is one of the big factors in their success. This advantage is that these initiatives have significantly lessened the cultural and subcultural divide that so frequently exists between those who enter the justice system as defendants and the system itself. Reducing this cultural divide leads to enhanced engagement with the system and opportunities for healing for both defendants and their communities.

Transforming the law into a “healing profession” that is appropriate to our country’s cultural diversity is, therefore, a path that we must take to make Aotearoa/New Zealand a better place for all citizens, individually and collectively.

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