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Has Christie’s Law toned down?

There are stark differences in how Christie’s Law is described by newspapers and by its website.

This was going to be a criticism of Christie’s Law.  That would have been easy enough.  But as I was researching the topic, I found something more interesting.

The proposals reported by the NZ Herald in February specify some rather drastic measures:

  • No bail for any person accused of an offence involving serious violence as defined by the “three strikes” legislation.
  • No bail for any person accused of an offence which attracts a sentence of two years or more.
  • Police given the discretionary power to veto a judge’s decision to grant bail which would then automatically move the application to a higher court.
  • The views of victims of violent offending be given paramount consideration.
  • Every serious bail breach is formally investigated.
  • More accountability for judges who expose the public to undue risk.

The demands described by the Dominion Post last week are almost exactly the same, except—

  • “Discretionary power to veto” became “appeal” (softer words, though they amount to the same thing given that the veto would just throw it to the next court)
  • Two points were added: “no payment, no bail” and “annual performance reviews of judges”

The website tells it differently
The mainstream media obviously, and necessarily, simplifies a complex topic for public digestion.  So fact that there’s much more detail on the Christie’s Law website isn’t surprising.

But the craziest measures reported by the newspapers—no bail for anyone accused of a “three strike” offence or an offence punishable by two years’ imprisonment, even with no prior convictions, full stop—isn’t there.  The equivalent point is:

1. No bail for any person who is charged with a serious violent “three strike” offence, who has previously committed a serious violent “three strike” offence while on bail.

It’s a relief that the website doesn’t advocate banning bail for offenders who haven’t even been convicted once.  While eliminating judicial discretion outright is concerning, this proposal isn’t as extreme as one might think.  Under the status quo, defendants charged with certain serious offences, who also have a conviction for another serious offence, must satisfy the judge that they’ll be safe “on the balance of probabilities”.  So there’s already recognition that we should bias against defendants with prior convictions, the question is just by how much.

Similarly, that “the views of victims… be given paramount consideration” isn’t quite what the website says now:

2. Judges should be required to pay particular regard to submissions made by victims, and any personal threats made against victims in deciding whether bail should be granted.

I’m not sure how different this is to the status quo, which says that “the need to protect the safety of the victim or victims of the alleged offending” is a “primary consideration”.  But, despite its vagueness, the difference in wording is noticeable.  The newspapers made it sound like victims’ opinions would be almost the only thing that matters.  The website’s “particular regard” is more reasonable, as is the specific reference to personal threats.

This isn’t to say that I now agree with Christie’s Law.  I’m still sceptical, particularly with “internal benchmarking of Judges’ performance” (point 8) and the extent to which they remove the presumption for bail for certain under-20s (point 4).  But at least some of the measures listed on their website—like closing a “three strikes” loophole (point 3) (I don’t agree with three strikes, but given that it’s there it should be consistent)—seem reasonable.

Why the difference?
There’s no way that I can think of (other than asking Tracey Marceau directly) to figure out exactly how the discrepancy between major newspapers and the website arose.  But one can speculate a few explanations, each as unlikely as each other.

The first, and most obvious, is that the newspapers got it wrong.  For anyone with strong views on the quality of New Zealand journalism, this is probably the most tempting.  But I don’t think journalists are prone to blatant factual errors of that degree.

The second is that Christie’s Law did tone down for whatever reason between February and now.  Perhaps they got advice from some in the legal profession, and modified their proposals to be more principled.  Perhaps they read public criticism and took it into account.  Perhaps they just thought about it more.

The third is that the Bail Amendment Bill, introduced last month, addresses a number of their concerns.  But Christie’s Law organisers note on their website that the bill doesn’t go as far as they’d like.  This also wouldn’t explain why the website—presumably more recent—is less hard-line that what the newspapers said.

The sort of detail that Christie’s Law organisers give on their website hasn’t really picked up in mainstream media.  I wonder if that frustrates them, given that they’re still getting reasonably good publicity.  But it also, assuming the website is correct, means the public won’t understand what they’re fighting for.

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