The last few weeks have been hectic, both in court and outside. Having been due to spend two weeks with the Crown Law Office (the body which provides legal advice and representation services to the government) I flew to Wellington on 13 November only to be woken at midnight by my hotel room shaking. New Zealand has not eased me in gently, my first earthquake was a 7.8! Offices were closed until engineers could declare them structurally sound and so I am back in Auckland on more solid ground and Meredith Connell have welcomed me back a little early. So as more time has passed since my last blog than I intended, what follows is a bumper edition!
I recently visited the Employment Court to observe a trial and meet with an Employment Court Judge. Due to the focus on mediation and the existence of the Employment Relations Authority (the venue which most cases must pass through before arriving at the Court on appeal) very few cases ever end up at the Court. Although this case was at the Court due to a challenge to the judgment of the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) it was a complete rehearing.
There are clear procedural differences between the Court and our Employment Tribunal, some of which may stem from the fact that the Court is not as busy as our Tribunal. For example, witness statements (or ‘briefs’) are not taken as read. They are read aloud by all witnesses by default, a process which can take hours. An interesting facet of the appeal system is that the ERA is not a court of record, and there are therefore issues about how to adduce what was said in the court below if inconsistent. In this case, a witness was called by the plaintiff to produce her handwritten notes of the ERA hearing which were then put to various witnesses at the Court. This was in contrast to the efficient production of the transcript of the Court hearing which was distributed to counsel at intervals throughout the day to allow them to have a verbatim record of questions and answers with which to continue their cross examination.
I have also spent a lot of time in the High Court over the past few weeks, the venue for the most serious criminal offences. Some differences between the High Court and our Crown Court are immediately obvious: for example the only wig in sight is in a display case in the foyer along with other such ancient relics!
My time has been spent observing the trial of a man accused of murder and GBH. This, like many other cases involving violence, concerns gang culture. The difference here being that it is the victims who had gang affiliations, not the defendant. The defendant is a man in his twenties with no previous convictions who was accused of murdering one man and seriously injuring the other when he stabbed both of them in the neck just after midnight on the street outside his house. The defendant had lived next door to a house with gang associations for just under two years and the prosecution case was that he had made it his mission to have them evicted. The defendant had regularly surveilled his next door neighbours including filming them through the window of their ‘sleep out’ building in the garden which they used for parties.
On the evening in question, the defendant went out into the street to observe a noisy party which was taking place next door. On walking past the house he was spotted by one of the victims who came and asked what he was doing. From there the accounts of the surviving victim and the defendant differ, but there was no dispute that the outcome was the two men from the party being stabbed in the neck, resulting in the death of one and serious injury to the other. After the stabbings the defendant got rid of the knife, shaved off his beard, bleached his clothes and denied his involvement to police and his girlfriend.
At trial, the defendant pleaded self defence and the jury was shown two video recorded interviews of the defendant: one in which he completely denied all involvement and the second in which he admitted that he stabbed the two men but said he did so because he was terrified and acted in self defence. Both video interviews were compelling evidence, allowing the jury to see the defendant giving his detailed accounts; the first being an admitted fabrication and the second being the version of events that he maintained to trial. The fact that the jury were able to see these videos meant that the defendant’s decision not to give evidence did not leave the jury without a chance to assess his character and his account but did have the benefit of protecting him from cross examination.
The prosecution’s most compelling challenge to the assertion of self defence was that the force used in the circumstances could not have been reasonable given the fact that there had been no real suggestion of lethal force being used against the defendant. The jury, however, disagreed and acquitted the defendant of all charges.
There has been significant media attention over the course of the past few weeks, with most witnesses having their evidence audio recorded to allow sound bites to be played on the radio and with pictures of the defendant in the dock accompanying press reports. It has been an intense and emotionally charged trial which culminated in the surviving victim slamming the glass barrier of the dock with his hand when the not guilty verdict was announced. Despite the victim’s family and friends’ reaction to the verdict it does not seem likely that there will be any appeal and the jury’s verdict looks set to stand.
For a fuller report of the case see this link.
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