Christchurch judge a 'joker' on appraisal site

ANNA TURNER
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2013
Judge the Judges
CARD GAME? The Sensible Sentencing Trust website, shown here in a screenshot, offers people the chance to 'deal the hand'.

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A Christchurch judge is among those coming under fire on a new controversial website.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust launched Judge the Judges, which asks the New Zealand public to "judge" some high-profile legal decisions.

On the website, photographs of the judges appeared on cards - aces when the Sensible Sentencing Trust agreed with their decision, or jokers when they did not.

One of the judges plastered on a joker card is Christchurch District Court Judge Gary MacAskill.

MacAskill presided last year over the case of Grant David Carter-Brown, who attacked Christchurch woman Caroline Courtney in a brutal road-rage attack.

Carter-Brown hit Courtney repeatedly over the head with a bike D-lock, made of plastic-covered steel, and smashed her car windows.

Her attacker was sentenced to four months' home detention and ordered to pay reparation totalling $4300.

The website asks the public to "be the judge" over the case.

"We think Judge Gary MacAskill dealt Caroline Courtney a very poor hand," the website says.

At the time, Courtney said the sentence was "an absolute joke".

Sensible Sentencing Trust spokeswoman Ruth Money said public confidence in the judiciary could be maintained only "through transparency and understanding".

"Hence this site serves to educate the public by providing summaries of cases we have been able to access."

The New Zealand Bar Association has labelled the website "ill-considered, totally unnecessary and likely to give rise to illegality as contempt of court".

President Stephen Mills, QC, likened the website to "talkback radio".

"[It's] likely to attract debate and comment of similar quality but with the added disadvantage (or advantage, depending upon one's perspective) of being permanently available and accessible in the blogosphere."

He said judges had "an extremely difficult job".

"The daily work of a judge in court is done publicly and is scrutinised by the news media. If the conduct of a judge is questioned, that conduct can be the subject of complaint to the judicial conduct commissioner."

University of Canterbury Dean of Law Dr Chris Gallavin said the website was "unseemly" but that it was not surprising, coming from the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

"Judges seem to be an easy target which is very wrong.

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"They're often criticised for their decisions but what people don't realise is that they are working within a legal framework. Often the criticism should be laid at the feet of the legislation, not that of individual judges," he said.

Fellow law professor Ursula Cheer said the website could possibly be defamatory or in contempt of court.

"For defamation if the website gets something wrong they could be in trouble. Also, if they attack the same judge over and over again it might be seen as ill will and not a genuine opinion," she said.

"It is rare to have a contempt of court because of freedom of expression, but again if it's untrue or becomes a malicious vendetta then it could be entering the arena of contempt."

Cheer said suggesting judges were wrong was "problematic".

"They are judging on behalf of the public.

"There is no right answer, they have to weigh things up and make a decision."

- The Press

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