New Zealand Law Society - Return Canterbury regional government to full democracy

Return Canterbury regional government to full democracy

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Continued partial suspension of regional democracy in Canterbury is inconsistent with core constitutional values, the New Zealand Law Society says.

The Law Society says extending the term of unelected Commissioners on the Canterbury Regional Council (Environment Canterbury) for a further three years to 2019 is not justified.

And it is significantly concerning that there may still not be a fully elected regional council in place by 2019 – nearly 10 years after commissioners were first appointed to replace elected councillors, the Law Society says.

In a submission to the Local Government and Environment Committee on the Environment Canterbury (Transitional Governance Arrangements) Bill, the Law Society calls for a return to full democracy for Environment Canterbury, with elections held next year.

“Representative democracy is a fundamental principle that gives legitimacy to government and the exercise of state power,” says Law Society Rule of Law Committee convenor Austin Forbes QC.

“Suspension of the democratic right to vote within a region for a significant period could only be justified in exceptional circumstances. The partial suspension of that democratic right for nine-and-a-half years requires particularly compelling justification.

“In the absence of such justification, the Law Society submits that the bill should not proceed.”

The argument that appointed commissioners need to stay in power to maintain momentum in decision-making is not a robust justification for the continued partial suspension of regional democracy, Mr Forbes says.

“It is not sufficient simply to allude to a hypothetical risk that Environment Canterbury’s work may ‘stall or lose direction’. If this argument was to be accepted there would never be a return to democracy.”

A fully elected council should now be able to deal with the remaining steps required to deal with earthquake recovery and improved freshwater management in Canterbury, he says.

Child sex offender register unlikely to be effective

The New Zealand Law Society says the proposed child sex offender register is unlikely to be effective in protecting children from the risk of sexual offending.

“The proposed register needs to be redesigned so that it’s targeted at child sex offenders who are likely to reoffend,” Law Society law reform committee member Tim Stephens says. The Law Society submission on the bill has been presented to Parliament’s Social Services Committee.

Under the Child Protection (Child Sex Offender Register) Bill, the proposed register takes a “blanket” approach by classifying sex offenders as a homogenous group, but the risk of individuals reoffending can vary greatly. Registers also perpetuate the view that strangers commit sexual offending, whereas sexual offending most often occurs by people who are known to victims, Mr Stephens says.

Advice from officials indicates there is limited evidence overseas about the effectiveness of child sex offender registers, and the Attorney-General has noted a scarcity of evidence that registers deliver significant benefits in terms of improved public safety.

The Law Society is also concerned that the proposed register would infringe rights affirmed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and says if the bill proceeds it should include amendments to reduce the rights infringements.

“Given the lack of evidence about the effectiveness of sex offender registers, and the Bill of Rights problems with the approach taken, the Law Society recommends that the bill should not proceed. It recommends an alternative, more targeted approach directed at the identification of individual offenders with a high potential to reoffend.

“This alternative model would ensure that measures appropriate for those offenders who pose a significant risk of future sexual offending against children are not extended automatically to those who pose no such risk,” Mr Stephens says.

Under the bill, offenders will stay on the register for eight years, 15 years or life, based on the qualifying offence committed. Convicted child sex offenders serving a sentence at the time the legislation comes into force, or convicted afterwards, would need to be registered. The register is scheduled to be in place by July 2016.

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