David Bain retrial judge: Don't tweak system

Last updated 18:18 01/08/2014
Fairfax NZ
Justice Graham Panckhurst.

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Justice Graham Panckhurst, who presided over David Bain's retrial and the royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River mining disaster, has retired after 18 years as a judge. 

The long-serving High Court judge took off his legal gown and left it on the bench in the No 1 High Court in Christchurch as a farewell, but not before delivering a parting warning against tweaking the legal system.

"It seems to me that the worth of the adversary system is sometimes questioned by interest groups, ministers, and others," he said today.

There was sometimes pressure for the introduction of some "inquisitorial elements", most often in family or criminal law.

"I doubt the wisdom of fine-tweaking the system we have," Justice Panckhurst said.

Sitting on the bench, he found himself swayed by one argument, and then by the other.

"That is the system working as it should. I doubt that it is broken. I think we should resist any temptation to 'fix' it."

Queen's Counsels, judges, lawyers, court staff, and family packed the ornate courtroom for the function for a man described as "a pillar of the Christchurch legal establishment", and "the silent assassin" for his cross-examination abilities as a Crown prosecutor.

The session heard of his admission to the bar in 1970 and his appointments as Crown solicitor for Christchurch in 1985, president of the Canterbury District Law Society in 1992, Queen's Counsel in 1994, and High Court judge in 1996.

New Zealand Law Society president Chris Moore spoke of Justice Panckhurst's reputation as "the silent assassin" from his time as a Crown prosecutor.

Canterbury and Westland District Law Society president Colin Eason spoke of his genuine concern for practitioners and their clients at hearings that had been focused on issues rather than personalities.

Solicitor-General Michael Heron said Justice Panckhurst had made an outstanding contribution to the law and the judiciary, right through to a recent decision about a prison hunger striker that disagreed with the Crown position.

A committee member of the New Zealand Bar Association, Malcolm Wallace, spoke of Justice Pankchurst's ability as a prosecutor to leave witnesses "mortally wounded" without the witness necessarily realising it.

Justice Panckhurst paid tribute to colleagues, court staff, and acknowledged family members - including many grandchildren - occupying the jury box.

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He said he was worried that the younger jurors might rapidly come to a verdict that the proceedings were "boring".

He had found it very satisfying to work in jury trials in a team environment. The Christchurch staff were seen as "the best of the best", he said.

"It is difficult to contemplate leaving this place," he said. "My gown is frayed ... literally. You might think I am heading that way as well. I'll take it off in a moment and leave it on the bench."

After that was done, his family joined him for photographs on the raised bench in the city's grandest courtroom.

- The Press

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