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Pistorius and the lessons for New Zealand

Pistorius and the lessons for New Zealand

March 10, 2014

The process employed to try criminal cases in New Zealand should be continually discussed and debated, a leading University of Canterbury (UC) criminal law academic says.

The global interest in the Oscar Pistorius case illustrates a collective fascination with crime, both its commission and prosecution, Associate Professor Chris Gallavin, Head of UC’s Law School says.

``The case serves as an example of the operation of a system of justice different to our own and, from that perspective, the coverage is a good thing in that it creates interest and debate in our system’ Dr Gallavin says.

``A number of people have said how peculiar they think it is that there is no jury in the case. I usually reply by saying that our concept of law and fair trial is only one conception and not the only conception.

``Apart from the OJ Simpson case, the Pistorius trial is likely to be the most publicised case ever. There is a confluence of matters that make this prosecution so intriguing: from the peculiar nature of the killing itself, to the social standing of those involved, the incredible sporting achievements of the defendant right through to seemingly trivial things such as the attractiveness of both the defendant and the victim.

``Unlike New Zealand, the South African system of justice borrows heavily from a Roman or civil law system of justice. One of the main differences between the systems is the lack of a jury system in South Africa.

``Criminal cases, even serious ones, are heard by a judge alone or a panel of judges sometimes with the use of lay judges who hold no formal legal qualification.

``Under our common law system of justice, where juries are a more or less everyday feature of the criminal courts, we see jury service as an important social service as well as integral to justice being seen to be done.

``With professional judges there is the chance of a more clinical and perhaps legalistic approach to cases, but with juries it could be argued that there is a greater opportunity for a more human approach to criminal conviction.

``While it is difficult to draw comparisons, it is certainly the case that both systems have their strengths and weaknesses and people ought not to view a juryless system as providing all of the answers to the perceived problems of the criminal process in New Zealand.’’

The in-court media coverage maximises the intrigue of the Pistorius case. Although not in the position of allowing a carte blanche right to news media to film and record anything they like in court, New Zealand has come a long way from the role of the court artist whose depictions of in-court scenes were once the only pictorial record allowed to be taken of daily court events.

Professor Gallavin says the New Zealand Media in Courts Review Panel has just released a consultation paper as part of the Chief Justice’s review of in-court television coverage that could ultimately result in significant liberalisation of the rules around filming and recording court proceedings.

``I have no doubt that the Pistorius case will have further twists and turns that will keep the world transfixed on the media coverage, much to the delight, I am sure, of news media providers around the world.’’


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