Editorial: Weighing up the cost of justice

Last updated 05:00 23/10/2010

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It is easy to see why Acting Attorney-General Judith Collins felt she should accept Supreme Court judge Justice Bill Wilson's offer to resign.

OPINION: While many might bridle at paying him a year's salary – $410,000 – and picking up his legal bill of $475,000, it was a pragmatic decision by the minister to cut the losses to the taxpayer.

She had rejected an earlier offer by Justice Wilson to go because his terms – presumably seeking a larger payout – were unacceptable.

However, there is another cost beyond the financial one. Ms Collins has also taken a gamble that the settlement will bring to an end the damage the episode was doing to the judiciary, and especially to the already controversial Supreme Court.

The alternative facing Ms Collins was to allow the issue to drag on. Justice Wilson – as he was entitled to do – had shown every sign of exercising to the full all his legal rights, beginning with a successful challenge to the establishment of a special panel to hear the allegations of misconduct against him.

That could have meant another 18 months to two years of paid "gardening leave" until the issue was resolved.

It would also have meant many hundreds of thousands of dollars more in legal bills for the taxpayer because of a law which requires the Government to pick up all reasonable legal costs for judges facing a judicial conduct panel, a provision that amounts to a gold-plated legal aid scheme.

Ms Collins worked on the assumption that the outcome at the end may well have been the same as the one achieved on Thursday – the departure of Justice Wilson.

The judge was not facing a criminal trial, but an inquiry into whether he had shown a lapse of judgment in failing to disclose adequately the business dealings he had with a lawyer who appeared before him.

She judged that not ending the matter now would have caused "incalculable damage to confidence in the judiciary".

There was also a fear that it would undermine the Supreme Court, which is still a young institution, and which already has its critics, who see it as an expensive, inadequate and unneeded replacement for the Privy Council.

That decision is a gamble. Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

The operation of the justice system relies on the public being confident both of the abilities and sound judgment of those making the decisions in it, and in there being checks and balances that swing into action when there is a suggestion that things have gone awry.

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The danger for Ms Collins – and for the integrity of justice system – is that the lesson the public will take from the Wilson episode is that, when there is a problem involving the judiciary, shortcuts are taken, it is tidied away, and judges whose behaviour is questioned walk off with what Auckland University law expert Bill Hodge has described as "a very sweet package".

- The Dominion Post

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