Having fewer judges is more disgraceful than leaking a judge’s letter to Chris Finlayson

Our Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, really does need to harden himself up for the rough-and-tumble of politics.

He sounded positively virginal when he chided his Labour counterpart, Charles Chauvel, for making public some correspondence from a judge.

“Disgraceful”, he thundered – or as near as he can get to thundering, which doesn’t get much above zero on a decibel measure.

Actually, Alf happens to think it’s disgraceful that the bureaucrats in the Justice Ministry want to reduce the numbers of judges we have in our district courts.

But we’ll get to that further on.

Finlayson finds Chauvel’s political opportunism disgraceful, which really makes one wonder about his world view.

Chauvel had done nothing more fiendish than brandish a leaked letter to question the number of District Court judges he is appointing.

Alf happens to have a sneaking regard for the notion we should be hiring more judges, not running down their numbers, although he would not want it to be known he disagrees with whatever the cabinet might decide on this issue.

The more judges we have, the faster we can lock up the villains, is Alf’s simple philosophy.

He happens to be highly suspicious of claims we need fewer judges because the crime rate is falling.

Dunno if Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue exactly shares his simple philosophy.

But according to Radio New Zealand (in a report here) an impending shortage of judges poses a significant risk for the courts.

In a letter to Mr Finlayson released by the Labour Party, Jan-Marie Doogue disputes Justice Ministry estimates of 23 surplus District Court judges in upcoming years.

She says a significant number of judges leaving next year won’t be replaced, and retirements from 2018 pose a significant risk for District Courts, with an increase in workloads and delays.

So what’s the problem with Chauvel letting us know what the judge thinks?

Ah. The precious Finlayson thinks her letter should not have been made public.

Mr Finlayson says correspondence between the judiciary and the Attorney-General is confidential and it was disgraceful of Labour Party MP Charles Chauvel to have leaked the letter.

Oh dear.

He really does live in a different world.

But what does his think about the concerns expressed in the letter about the number of judges?

He’s not saying.

Neither Mr Finlayson nor the Law Society would comment on the letter’s contents.

The NZ Herald has an account of this issue, too.

Here we learn that

Chief District Court Judge Jan-Marie Doogue has made a strong plea privately to Attorney-General Chris Finlayson to address the falling number of judges, a confidential letter shows.

Dunno why the Herald tossers describe it as a confidential letter.

Thanks to Chauvel, it is out there in the public domain – as the newspaper acknowledged in the very next sentence.

The letter from her to Mr Finlayson was leaked to Labour justice spokesman Charles Chauvel – another embarrassing leak for the Government after a series of leaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The letter dated May 2 was copied to all 147 district court judges and Mr Chauvel said he was sent four copies of it – none from Judge Doogue.

It expresses concern at Ministry of Justice advice that 23 district court judges would be surplus to requirement in upcoming years because of the impact of policing excellence and a drop in crime.

The chief district court had pleaded the case for Finlayson to at least extend Acting Warrants for retired judges willing to continue “in the face of an inability to secure new judges to replace those who have retired.”

She projected retirements of permanent and acting judges for the next 10 years and said the total attrition rate for permanent judges over 10 years was 36 per cent and for acting warranted judges, 78 per cent.

“The large number of permanent judges retiring from 2018 onwards is a significant risk for district courts.”

She was seeking the immediate extension of an acting warrant, a new acting warrant and the appointment of two new judges to Auckland to support the work work of judges particularly in South Auckland.

Chauvel did what Alf would expect him to do by using Question Time in Parliament to try to get some sense out of the A-G.

In the Parliamentary arena, Finlayson came up with a few answers.

He said he had doubts about the number of judges – 23 – being surplus as officials have stated.

“That figure has been mentioned. For myself, I have doubts as to whether it is a correct figure. As to the number of judges it will always depend on the circumstances.”

He said the advice had been no more than a “preliminary draft” and more work was being done on it.

So far, so good.

But then he became precious again about his idea of the public interest.

He said it was not in the public interest to comment on any discussion he had met with the judiciary.

Chauvel asked for an assurance that neither Finlayson nor his ministerial colleagues had admonished any judge for speaking about Government policy proposals or for making submissions to select committees.

Mr Finlayson said he did not know what he was referring to.

Alf didn’t know, either, but he is a bit more enlightened now, because Chauvel told the Herald some judges believe the cutback in their numbers is a response to criticisms judges have made publicly of criminal law reform.

If that be so, and if we are going to be rid of 23 judges, we had better be sure we are rid of judges who are wimpish about banging up villains.

But having got rid of the wimps, we should replace them with judges who are sure to be hard-nosed.

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