NZ must defend judicial independence – senior UK judicial official

by Sol Dolor06 Nov 2017
A high-ranking UK judicial official has warned New Zealand’s legal profession about being careless about judicial independence.

In a lecture at Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law, Geoffrey Vos, the Chancellor of the High Court of England and Wales, said that a fair and impartial judicial decision-making process, in which all parts of society and the state itself have absolute confidence, is essential to democracy.

This may be obvious in both New Zealand and England, he said.

“The problem, however, only arises when things are not working properly. And that’s why a study starting from first principles is useful, because we live in rapidly changing societies,” he said. “We live in rapidly changing political times. And as we shall see in a moment, even basic principles cannot always be taken for granted, even in those countries where you would have thought they could be.”

“Almost all justice systems face new challenges that demand new responses. And many of them, just as an aside, are caused by the changing political face of the world. We have a changing political face in the United States, we have it across Europe with the election of right-wing regimes, and we have it in almost every country,” Vos said.

Sir Geoffrey used a 2016-17 survey conducted by the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ). The ENCJ surveyed about 12,000 judges in 25 European countries for the study, and found that in three countries, more than 20% said they were put under inappropriate pressure to decide a certain way in previous cases.

“In three countries, more than 20 percent agreed or were not sure: Albania, Lithuania and Latvia. So you’re all going to say, ‘Well, so what, we knew that already’,” he said.

However, of much greater concern are the 11 countries where 11% to 19% of judges agreed or were not sure. These 11 countries include France, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Sweden.

More than 20% of judges in 17 countries also agreed or were not sure whether in the previous two years, any judges in their countries accepted bribes. These countries include France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

“Even Belgium was on 17 percent and Austria and Germany 10 percent. The only countries where there was a nil return — where England as usual scored ‘nil points’ — was Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden and the UK,” Vos said.

He also said that in 13 countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, more than 30% of judges believed decisions handed down by judges were affected by actual or anticipated media coverage.

Vos also said that in the UK, 43% of judges thought their government did not respect their independence.

“Now it’s a difficult question, because there could be a multitude of reasons why a judge would answer yes to that question and the answers in the UK are likely to be connected with pay and pensions whereas if the same level of judges had answered that question in Romania it’s probably to do with something quite different indeed. But nonetheless the figure of 43% is rather striking,” he said.

In a separate survey in which 99% of salaried judges participated, 98% said they did not feel valued by the government, he added.

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