Criticism of judge-only trial in Urewera case

The Court of Appeal decision to uphold a judge-only trial in the “Urewera 18” case was slammed by Fran O’Sullivan in today’s

Weekend Herald column.

She rightly can’t see why the defendants should not “have their case heard by a jury of their peers.”

The Crimes Act was

amended in 2008

to allow a trial to be “judge-only” in certain cases that were “likely to be long and complex”. This was envisaged to apply mainly to complex fraud cases, not long criminal cases like murder, which the public rightly expects to have a jury. It doesn’t appear that Urewera cases, mainly concerned with arms charges, would test a jury’s common sense more than, say, the Bain case.

We can easily see the downside of this case being “judge-only”. Already there is criticism of racial insensitivity in the way Police conducted the October 2007 raids in Tuhoe country, leading to the arrest of those now on trial. Do we really want to risk the judiciary being subject to a similar insensitivity charges, when the trial could be heard by 12 people from all walks of life and probably different cultures?

Fran O’Sullivan notes in her column that “Even Greens MP Keith Locke – who has been the subject of Security Intelligence Service surveillance – has had little (if anything) to say on the court’s decision.” She is right to hurry me up, but I have been slow off the mark for two reasons. It is good for MPs to protect the independence of the courts, and be cautious when commenting on a judgement. And this case has been particularly fraught, because the High Court Judge, Helen Winkelmann, first off suppressed the fact she had even made a judgement, and then suppressed all details of it – other than she wouldn’t allow a jury trial. I have yet to see the Court of Appeal’s reasons for upholding Justice Winkelmann’s decision.