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New Zealand Supreme Court has majority support

16 September 2003 Media Statement

New Zealand Supreme Court has majority support

Attorney-General Margaret Wilson says the Justice and Electoral select committee’s report on the Supreme Court Bill marks the historic day when New Zealand has taken political responsibility for its final appellate court.

“It affirms the building of a strong and confident nation that believes in access to justice and believes the justice system should offer everyone two levels of appeal.”

The Supreme Court Bill has gained majority support in Parliament after the hearing of submissions and deliberations by the Justice and Electoral select committee.

The Green Party gives unqualified support to the establishment of the Supreme Court in New Zealand and ending appeals to the Privy Council in London.

The Government is in discussions with United Future New Zealand to secure their support.

Margaret Wilson says the Bill has emerged from the select committee process largely unchanged, but there are differing political views on many aspects of the Bill.

“The select committee’s report reflects careful and multi-faceted consideration of complex issues. It is a study of democracy under MMP, where the different political viewpoints have come into play at various levels.”

She challenges the National Party to allow the abolitionists within its own ranks to support the Bill. “Ending Privy Council appeals used to be National’s policy before the party became reactive and purely political.”

A key change to the Bill is the addition of a purpose clause outlining the reasons for establishing the Supreme Court that makes it clear the founding legislation protects the constitutional status quo.

The addition of the purpose clause was initially driven by the Green Party’s desire for the legislation to explicitly acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi. There was however a majority view that the Bill should not change the legal status of the Treaty, even inadvertently. There was also a desire to ensure that the principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law were not undermined.
“The purpose clause addresses those concerns,” Margaret Wilson says.

The committee also recommends allowing a sixth judge to be appointed if the court’s workload requires it, that written reasons be provided if a leave application is refused, that technical advisors can be appointed in any case, the removal of “matters of tikanga” from the leave criteria, and a revision of the transitional arrangements.

The Government accepts those recommendations.

The select committee rejected calls for a referendum, a requirement for overseas judges or an alternative process for appointing Supreme Court judges.

Margaret Wilson says the Government hopes to pass the Bill by Christmas. The date the Court begins to sit depends on the time needed for a smooth administrative transition, but a probable date is 1 July next year.

The Court will be housed in temporary premises while the High Court heritage building in Wellington’s Ballance St is refurbished to provide permanent accommodation.

Margaret Wilson says all judges are chosen on merit. The appointments process will begin after the Bill is passed. A panel comprising the Chief Justice, Solicitor-General and a lay representative, Sir Paul Reeves, will make recommendations to the Attorney-General, who in turn makes recommendations to the Governor-General.

In the interests of promoting certainty without predetermining the selection process, Margaret Wilson says she expects Supreme Court judges to be appointed from the Court of Appeal. “If the panel recommends differently, I would want to know why.”

The majority support for the Bill is a vote of confidence in the New Zealand judiciary and the nation’s ability to produce legal talent on par to any in the world.

“The process for appointing judges is long-established, and our judiciary is respected throughout the world for its absolute integrity, impartiality and ability.”

“There are powerful conventions protecting judicial appointments from political interference. Successive Attorney-Generals have always respected those conventions and I will continue that tradition. If I did not, the integrity of the Supreme Court would be undermined to the extent that there would be no purpose in its establishment in the first place.”

Margaret Wilson says another development arising from the select committee’s deliberations is the interest in establishing an independent body to appoint judges in the future. “The Government is now considering the best way to explore that possibility. Policy work and public discussion will be required.”

Such work is timely as Westminster democracies – including Australian states and most recently the United Kingdom – are re-examining the tradition of judicial appointments by the Executive.


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