Several of the country’s top judges have been described as idiosyncratic, arrogant, inflexible and not up to the job intellectually.
Nor can many run a courtroom efficiently or write timely and coherent judgments. Many lack litigation experience, meaning they come to the Bench with little idea about how to conduct a trial.
Most seriously, at least two are accused of predetermining a case before hearing the evidence.
The criticism comes in Judging the Judges, a survey published in today’s issue of The Independent where a group of our top barristers has been asked to rate our higher court judges.
All spoke on condition of anonymity. All had previously been offered positions on the Bench – and turned them down.
Separately, they were each asked to rank every judge in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
They were also asked what qualities they expected from their judges.
As a basic, the barristers want judges to have good analytical and interpretation skills (Court of Appeal), adjudication ability (High Court), stand-and-deliver (litigation) experience, scholarship, intelligence, the ability to engage in dialogue, and to be compassionate and fair.
Underlying the survey is the issue of power. Judges are empowered to stand in judgment of us all. But who judges the judges?
Nobody, it seems
Short of impeachment, they’re hard to shift once appointed to their $360,000-a-year (plus) jobs. And there’s little in the way of accountability and quality control.
Recently-retired High Court judge John Hansen calculates each High Court judge, with support staff, costs taxpayers more than $630,000 a year, plus superannuation.
With this sort of money, the public is entitled to expect fast, inexpensive, fair and just resolution of criminal and civil matters, Hansen says.
Are we getting it?
A big percentage of our top barristers say no.
The Independent did a similar survey in 1994, to the fury of then Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum and members of the conservative legal Establishment.
As they saw it, Judging the Judges was vulgar, abusive and brought the judicial system into disrepute. It was “unprecedented in New Zealand for lawyers to speak out critically in public of judges in this way”, Sir Thomas said at the time.
The Independent’s view: respect for the judiciary and courts as institutions might be essential but respect for the individuals occupying these positions must be earned if it is to be worthy of the name. Most of the information is common knowledge among the barristers who appear daily before these judges.
The Independent’s sin, it appears, was making it public.
But this type of information is highly relevant to business readers paying legal bills who want to know as much as possible about a judge’s style and capabilities, and how he/she might react to different circumstances and different types of argument.
Lawyers, or those who want to win, tailor their arguments to suit a particular judge’s particular style.
It is also relevant to suggestions by Justice Minister Simon Power that the already considerable power of judges could be boosted by moves to scrap jury trials for offences carrying less than three years’ jail.
A spokesman for Power said yesterday the minister “wasn’t interested” in commenting on the survey.