Blenheim court tops list for rate of permanent name suppression

New figures from the Ministry of Justice show that the Blenheim District Court had the highest rates of permanent name ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

New figures from the Ministry of Justice show that the Blenheim District Court had the highest rates of permanent name suppression in the country in the 2015-16 year.

People are more likely to get permanent name suppression at the Blenheim District Court than anywhere else in the country, raising questions about consistency in sentencing.

Of the 806 people charged in the Blenheim courthouse in the 2015-16 year, 2.85 per cent were granted permanent name suppression, figures from the Ministry of Justice show, more than six times that of Christchurch at 0.4 per cent.

This percentage was the highest in the country, and was consistently high in previous years, at 3 per cent the year before, and 4.5 per cent the year before that.

Oamaru District Court came a close second at 2.81 per cent.

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In contrast, only 1 per cent of people charged in Nelson and 0.4 per cent charged in Christchurch received permanent name suppression.

Commentators have described the difference between Blenheim and other courthouses as "inconsistent" and called for closer examination of granted applications.

Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) founder Garth McVicar, a vocal campaigner against name suppression, said new legislation was needed to reduce what he described as an "inconsistent" approach by judges.

"There are some very liberal judges and that filters through to the courts as well.

"That's a concern we've had."

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If he had his way, it would become an election issue.

The judiciary was "very anti-mandatory legislation", as it reduced their ability to use their discretion, he said.

However, justice needed to be open and honest, and that was not currently the case, he said.

Labour's Justice spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said work needed to be done to determine if name suppression was being used appropriately, and if there were inconsistencies.

"I'd be interested in more of a breakdown of the numbers," she said.

Blenheim-based criminal defence lawyer Rob Harrison said he was surprised by the figures.

"I doubt it's the judges. We share a lot of ours with Nelson."

He suspected people living in smaller towns were more likely to be granted permanent name suppression.

When everyone in a small town knew of a person's criminal history, it made it more difficult for them to return to a normal life in the community, he said.

"In a larger centre, issues of identification do not have quite the same effect."

Permanent name suppression was more likely to be granted for people found not guilty because of mental health issues, or to protect the complainant than the defendant, Harrison said.

"And that is especially necessary in a small town."

Fellow Blenheim criminal defence lawyer Kent Arnott agreed it was possible the size of the town influenced how frequently judges awarded permanent suppression.

"The rules about suppression are quite tough, and the judges don't like doing it, and there has to be good reasons for doing it. The law was actually amended to make it more difficult to get it 2011."

Justice Minister Amy Adams said the number of defendants gaining permanent name suppression had dropped significantly.

"New Zealanders made it clear they thought too many people were getting permanent name suppression. At the same time there are legitimate circumstances where a defendant's name needs to be suppressed such as to protect the victims or ensure a fair trial.

"The law as it is now framed appears to be striking a better balance between the interests of the parties involved and the public's right to know."

Top 10 courts for permanent name suppression

1. Blenheim

2. Oamaru

3. Queenstown

4. Masterton

5. Invercargill

6. Dunedin

7. Greymouth

8. Alexandra

9. Timaru

10. Nelson

 - The Marlborough Express

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