The Supreme Court

I blogged a while back on the Supreme Court blog that has been started up. Two of the posts were quite critical of the Court’s decision on the Urerewa case, including former Judge who noted:

The Chief Justice’s unnecessarily wide statement that the police cannot do anything that is not authorized by statute is based on a misunderstanding as to the way police powers developed.


The Chief Justice also held that an unlawful search is necessarily an unreasonable search. I believe that the view of the majority in Jefferies to the opposite effect is correct. Tipping J was not amiss in describing the contrary view as “absolutist” (at [226]).

Now it is not unusual for lawyers to disagree or even Judges to disagree. However when a number of lawyers state the Chief Justice was plainly wrong in comments she made, you do take notice. And I have heard lots of criticism over that judgement from others in the legal community.

But it was just once case, so i thought. Until I watched The Court Report last week, and they had no less a person than top QC on, voicing his concerns (most diplomatically and respectfully) about the performance of the . dr Farmer’s comments come from a blog post he made back in August.

My criticisms, if I can express them with respect, are limited to 2 recent cases.  
The first relates to the superficial way in which the Court dealt with the important competition law issues that were rightly brought to it in Commerce Commission v. Telecom (the 0867 case).  As (losing) counsel in the case, I do not comment here on the outcome – indeed from the point of view of the Commerce Commission wanting to establish a precedent that clarified the law that may not have been that important – but I think I am entitled to endorse the views of many others practising in this important area of law and policy that we were entitled to much better principled guidance than we received in the short Judgment that was delivered.

Dr Farmer said on TV that the top court should be perhaps hearing fewer cases, and giving them more consideration as befits their role as the final arbiter of the law. Their judgements should clarify, not confuse the law.

We see this again in the NZSC blog on the above case:

Interestingly, the Chief Justice preferred the view that error of law is reached “whenever a body entrusted with a determination of fact has reached a conclusion that is clearly wrong or is unreasonable.” This wording, and in particular the emphasis on the fact-finding nature of the decision-maker, is surprising.

And NZ Lawyer Online reports:

I can’t recall a time when our most senior local court – the Court of Appeal before 2004 and the Supreme Court since then – has been the subject of so much criticism.

This suggests to me that the dis-satisfaction is not just the normal disgruntlement, but that there are real issues with the quality of the decisions of the Supreme Court. That is not to say the decisions are wrong, but that they are not providing the clarity of the law which is so vital in a country of laws. The criticisms are also that basic errors of fact are being made also:

Tax barrister Geoff Harley spoke a couple of weeks ago to a large gathering of accountants and lawyers. His topic was the Supreme Court’s decision in Penny and Hooper v Commissioner of Inland Revenue [2011] NZSC 95. He said the Court had got the facts wrong (in [3], [11], [14], [35], and footnote 7 of the judgment), and he proceeded from that platform to criticise various aspects of the Court’s reasoning.

Writing in the latest part of the New Zealand Business Law Quarterly, Paul Scott, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, was highly critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in Commerce Commission v Telecom Corporation of New Zealand Ltd & Anor [2010] 1 NZLR 577. Justice Blanchard has said extrajudicially that the decision in that case has aligned New Zealand law with that of Australia and has widened section 36 of the Commerce Act 1986. Scott says bluntly, “The decision has done nothing of the sort. The Supreme Court has missed the point, misread Australian law, and taken a wrong turn…” He adds that the decision “is also internally inconsistent”.

has noted:

The skids are under our Supreme Court in its current form.

Last night’s Court Report on TVNZ 7 would look innocuous to non-lawyers, but Dr Jim Farmer QC’s open public criticism of the Court’s quality is highly significant. Dr Rodney Harrison QC was there for balance, but his defence of the Court was lame.  That three QCs were discussing the problem on TV at all is extraordinary in NZ. Our legal establishment has discreetly enforced the conventions against lawyer public comment that might undermine respect for the courts in which they practice. Concerns about judicial quality have been inhouse whispers only.

Dr Farmer’s anxiety was made public in a post on his website in August. There too he was careful, to the  point of parody, to emphasize his respect for the Court. But what he says is a mild version of the worries widely expressed among eminent barristers.

Judges too are deeply frustrated. Court of Appeal judgments are commonly more useful than the superior court  judgments that supersede them. Instead of simplifying and clarifying, too many Supreme Court decisions add complexity.

It was very unusual to have such an eminent QC raise his concerns about the court in such a public way. The concerns should not be brushed aside.

Of course only the Court itself can take note of the criticisms. Appointments are until age 72, unless there is very serious misconduct.

But there is also an avenue open to the Government, if they wish to take heed of the concerns. Section 17(1)(b) of the Supreme Court allows the Attorney-General to appoint a sixth member of the court. Perhaps it is time to do just that.

UPDATE: I got two cases mixed up. The blog post is on the recent case Vodafone v Telecom, whereas Jim Farmer’s comments related to an earlier and unrelated case (Commerce Commission v Telecom). Also the Supreme Court blog authors have e-mailed to stress their article was on a narrow technical area of the law, and should not be seen as criticism of the Supreme Court or Chief Justice.

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