Speeches

Address to Law Foundation 2015 Awards Dinner

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 19:00
Courts
Justice

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

It’s my pleasure to address this year’s New Zealand Law Foundation awards dinner.

At the risk of offending those I don’t name, I would like to acknowledge some of the dignitaries here this evening:

  • Her Honour the Chief Justice and members of the judiciary
  • The Attorney-General
  • Leader of the Opposition and other parliamentary colleagues
  • New Zealand Law Foundation Chair Dr Andrew Butler and your board members.

It’s exactly a year to this very night when I last had the privilege of addressing this audience – when I had been Minister of Justice for only eight weeks.

I spoke then of the challenge of diving straight into the role as a senior Minister of the Crown.

One year later, I can safely say I’m relishing the role of Minister of Justice.

It’s humbling to be leading the Justice Sector, especially when there’s so much we can be proud of.

Every day, judges, lawyers, court staff, Police officers, Corrections staff and many others have an incredible opportunity to improve people’s lives and their experience of the justice system.

Of course, this opportunity also presents immense challenges and I’d like to touch on some of those later this evening.

Being bold and brave

But first I’d like to commend the Law Foundation for the excellent work it has supported over the past year and congratulate in advance all those who are to be honoured this evening.

The Law Foundation provides an invaluable service to the legal community.

As New Zealand’s only independent funder of legal research, the Foundation plays a huge part in facilitating legal research that would not otherwise be possible in this country.

The Law Foundation’s focus on ground-breaking research is a large part of what makes the Foundation so important.

As a Government, we have been challenging ourselves to think quite differently about how we tackle some of the complex social and economic issues facing our country. 

There should be no ‘sacred cows’ when analysing what works and what doesn’t, or when it comes to challenging the status quo.

We need to be brave if we are to improve people’s experience of justice in this country.

Of course, this doesn’t mean doing away with successful ways of working for the sake of ‘being innovative’, especially as new policies and initiatives always involve a certain element of risk.

What it means is raising our expectations about what is possible and what we can achieve together.

A key focus for this government has been ensuring we have a sound picture of the system, especially the outcomes of different policies.

We live in an age of almost infinite information, and we need to use that to our advantage.

This Government is working hard to ensure better collection and use of information – whether you want to call it evidence-based policy, big data analytics or just common sense.

All of that requires much more co-ordination than we’ve seen ever before – inside, across and outside government.

As Justice Minister, I want to make sure New Zealanders continue to trust and have confidence in the justice system. And that requires all players in the system to analyse how they’re working and what they could do better.

And of course, it’s not just a challenge for the Government. At the end of the day, it’s up to all of us in our respective roles to ensure justice is delivered in a timely and fair way for all New Zealanders.

One of the most attractive aspects of being part of the legal profession is the opportunity to make a real difference to society. Not only in the day-to-day impact you have for your clients. But in the impact you can have on law reform – on the rules that say how our society works.

I recognise, of course, that it can be extremely hard to find the time to consider new ideas and to advocate for them in the public arena.

I know how easy it can be to get caught up in the day-to-day struggle of deadlines, work in progress, court hearings, client meetings and billable hours.

Of course, I know many of you here tonight already do spend many hours and a lot of effort in advocating for new ideas.

I would like to thank you for that. Your contribution is valued.

The legal profession has so much to offer, and I encourage all of you to put forward your ideas and to take part in the debate about improving our justice system.

That’s why I’m in this role and what I spend every day focussed on.

But it needs to be us all, working together, challenging ourselves and each other, and focusing on solutions.

The contribution of the Law Foundation

I’d like to move on now to speak about the contribution of the Law Foundation to New Zealand’s justice system.

As Minister of Justice, I am especially interested in those areas where the government can cooperate with the Foundation in developing better public policy.

Last year I mentioned the evaluation of the Government’s major family law reforms in 2014. It’s led by a research team at Otago University and funded by the Foundation.

Back then the project was just getting under way – I understand that the research team made good progress with the initial scoping and further work is expected in 2016.

Their evaluation will draw on lessons from Australia, England and Wales where similar changes to family dispute resolution procedures have been in place longer than New Zealand’s.

That project is benefiting from a formal cooperation agreement between the Foundation and the Ministry of Justice.

The agreement allows both organisations to help each other on research projects that have mutual benefit. Examples include sourcing government information, peer reviewing research, providing advice, identifying expertise and sharing legal research priorities.

Another important project has started recently that also involves close cooperation between the Foundation, the Ministry of Justice and Otago University researchers.

This study tackles the often lengthy delays in progressing civil cases. These delays and associated costs can be a real deterrent to those who expect to be able to use the system to gain redress.

The study is the first large-scale project of its kind in New Zealand. It aims to find reasons for the delays and to present possible solutions.

The researchers will analyse data from all the approximately 3300 civil cases dealt with in the year to 30 June 2015, using anonymised case information provided by the Ministry of Justice under the cooperation agreement with the Foundation.

The Ministry and the researchers are working very closely together to make this work. I see it as another great example of how this cooperation can work at a practical level, and I look forward to seeing the results.

Another project I’m interested in is the Best Evidence – Best Practice resource for legal professionals who work with vulnerable witnesses and defendants.

This research is intended to address a gap in legal education that is unlikely to be addressed through existing education pathways. It’s the first resource of its kind in Australasia, and it has the potential to achieve broad and enduring impact.

I look forward to hearing more about these – and other projects – supported by the Foundation in the future.

My priorities for the sector

One year into my tenure as Justice Minister, I have to say I’m proud of the outstanding results we’re achieving for New Zealanders and their families.

This Government has relentlessly focussed on reducing crime and re-offending, and ensuring victims are at the heart of our criminal justice system.

Overall crime in New Zealand is at a 30 year low.

We’ve put 600 extra police on the beat and equipped them with innovative new tools and technology to fight crime in communities.

We’ve introduced the $50 Victims’ Offender Levy which has generated more than $16.6 million since its introduction and benefited more than 40,000 victims a year.

In the last seven years, we’ve passed 94 pieces of Justice legislation, including:

  • the Victims of Crime Reform Bill to improve the rights and services for all victims
  • the Harmful Digital Communications Bill to protect victims of cyber-bullying
  • And more recently the Returning Offenders (Management and Information) Bill to assess and supervise offenders returning to our shores.

But that doesn’t mean our work is finished – far from it.

Family violence

Combating family violence remains my top priority.

In my view, family violence is one of the most insidious forms of social evil facing this country. More must be done to address it.

The level of family violence in New Zealand is appalling. Last year alone, more than 100,000 incidents were reported to Police – around one every five minutes. What’s more, nearly half of all homicides and reported violent crimes are family violence-related.

You would be wrong to assume that family violence is just something that happens to people who are economically less well off.

It affects everyone.

It can happen in every neighbourhood, across generations and across cultures. While it affects both genders, it is overwhelmingly committed by men against women and children, and is repugnant.

As a nation we must do more to stop this horrific culture of violence.

There’s no silver bullet to tackling this problem.

It’s about culture, community, respect and accountability.

But certainly Government has a role to play.

What we’ are doing across government is taking a hard look at every aspect of the response to family violence and every family violence service to determine the best way to tackle this problem.

In August I launched a discussion document about New Zealand’s family violence legislation. I think the law can do more to reduce the incidence and impact of family violence.

The discussion document sought people’s views about improving the way the law prevents and responds to family violence. I want a comprehensive rethink to strengthen New Zealand’s legislative response.

Public consultation closed in September and I hope many of you took the time to engage with the process.

We can’t legislate our way out of this. But our laws are a cornerstone of how we respond to family violence.

Only with the support and engagement of the legal profession can we do our best to protect victims from re-victimisation and hold perpetrators to account.

A year ago I asked the Law Commission to resume work on proposals to better support victims of sexual violence through the criminal process.

The Commission has revisited its previous work on alternative pre-trial and trial processes to identify options for improving complainants' experience in court.

It’s also paid particular attention to the extent to which a new framework or new processes should be developed to deal with sex offence cases.

Victims of sexual violence go through such a harrowing ordeal.

We need to make the legal response that ordeal as respectful as possible to ensure the process doesn’t needlessly re-victimise them.

Part of me asking the Law Commission to resume its work was about challenging them to be open to new ideas and approaches.

As I stressed earlier, the legal profession needs to try and find new and innovation solutions to age-old problems, and this is a key opportunity to do just that.

I’m looking to the Law Commission to recognise where the system isn’t working as it should and to explore creative thinking where we can improve the system.

The law is based on traditions but we cannot be slaves to it if we want a step change.

And a step change is exactly what I’m after if we’re ever going to start turning back the tide of sexual violence in this country.

The Law Commission’s report is due out before the end of the year and I look forward to seeing some of those brave ideas I’ve been seeking.

I’d also like to mention the Evidence Amendment Bill. The Justice and Electoral Select Committee recently reported back to the House and recommended that the Bill be passed with some amendments.

The Bill aims to improve the court process for vulnerable witnesses.

It includes a proposal to restrict defence counsel access to video records of Police interviews of witnesses in sexual and violent cases and interviews child complainants in all cases. This important law change will ensure these videos are not misused.

The Bill will require the defence to give notice to all parties prior to the trial if it intends to lead evidence of a complainant’s sexual history with someone other than the defendant.

And it will introduce a presumption that all witnesses under the age of 18 will use alternative ways of giving evidence.

The Bill underlines the Government’s commitment to better support victims of crime and vulnerable people who get caught up in the justice system through no fault of their own.

Earlier this month, I appointed Dr Kim McGregor as the first ever Chief Victims Advisor. With nearly 30 years' experience working first-hand with victims of sexual and family violence, she is the ideal candidate for this newly-created position.

The Chief Victims Advisor will be responsible for providing the Government with independent advice on legislative, policy and other issues relating to victims of crime. I look forward to working with Dr McGregor in the future.

Trusts

Another of my core priorities is reforming the 1956 Trustee Act.

Trusts are a vital part of our legal system but the laws governing them are archaic and in desperate need of updating.

So the Government is planning an overhaul – the first in nearly 60 years. 

We need to ensure the law is fit for purpose, so it’s not a handbrake on the economy, or overly complex and inflexible for trustees and those that administer the law. 

This is a significant piece of work. I really can’t overstate the unnecessary complexity of current trust law and the influence this has on so many New Zealanders.

The Law Commission estimates that there are around 300,000 to 500,000 trusts in New Zealand. A large amount of New Zealand’s wealth is held in trusts, and the popularity of trusts here sets us apart from other similar countries. 

With trusts serving a wide range of purpose and affecting so many New Zealanders, it’s important that our trust law is fit for these purposes.

Many of you will be familiar with the Law Commission’s 2013 report, which was the culmination of a four-year process, including six discussion papers and many hours of public and sector consultation.

The final report included 51 recommendations, the vast majority of which concern core trust law.

The Government has accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation to replace the outdated Trustee Act with a new Trusts Act.

We also said we needed to carry out further analysis of the Law Commission’s other recommendations to determine what the content of the new Act should be.

I am undertaking that further analysis with able assistance from a group of Trust law experts.

Tonight, I would like to acknowledge that reference group and the hard work they do. Members include:

  • Alison Gilbert of Brookfields
  • Greg Kelly of Greg Kelly Law
  • Andrew Logan of Mortlock McCormack
  • Jared Ormsby of Wynn Williams
  • Bill Patterson of Patterson Hopkins
  • Professor Nicola Peart of Otago University
  • and Stephen Tomlinson.

The purpose of this reference group has not been to replicate the work of the Law Commission, but to build on it and ensure that its proposals are fully road-tested and will work in practice.

Since April, this group has held four detailed meetings to go through the major areas for reform, with a view to me seeking Cabinet’s approval for the policy proposals and issue drafting instructions for a new Act in 2016.

I have found the input of these trusts professionals to be invaluable as it provides me with reassurance that what we implement will be fit for purpose and relevant to the people who use it day in and out.

The group members have given up their time to contribute to a piece of reform that, while it won’t grab the headlines, will affect a huge range of New Zealanders.

I truly value the ability to be able to involve members of the legal profession to ensure we get law reform like this right.

I am sure many of you have a personal interest in seeing progress towards reform of New Zealand’s trust law, and I look forward to continued engagement with the legal profession about this work.

Closing remarks

Once again, thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight.

The Justice Sector has much to be proud of. We’re achieving great things together.

But there is always more to be done.

My lasting message to you tonight is that the opportunities ahead of us far outweigh the challenges.

Challenging ourselves and each other to be brave and bold is critical if we’re going to make lasting change.

Finally, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a safe and happy holiday break.

 

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