The first case note on Zhang v R: meth sentencing pipe dreams

We don’t know what the Court of Appeal will say in its soon(?)-to-be-released guideline judgment on meth sentencing. (EDIT: now we do!  It’s going to be released on Monday 21 October at 11.30am!)  At the moment the decision is shy (by which I mean it is extremely reserved).

But why should that stop pre-punditry?  My opinions are normally so wildly off base I don’t see why not having read the judgment should hold me back.  If anything, uninformed commentary means I’m *more* likely to be on the mark.

So, with that in mind, here is the first case note on the Court of Appeal’s decision in Zhang v R.  

Wow, what a decision!  We can safely say this was written with all audiences in mind.  Whether you’re anti-prison, pro-deterrence, a fan of judicial sleight-of hand, or an arch-Parliamentary sovereigntarian; truly, there’s something here for everyone to dislike.

Gone are the four bands of starting points in R v Fatu.  Replacing them are twenty-three different overlapping bands of starting point gradation, based on inputs ranging from commerciality, offender role, purity, actual and potential profit, gang affiliation, offender star sign, and the colour of getaway vehicle (if any).  An appendix to the judgment sets out an inputs table, that details a range of multipliers to be determined by the sentencing judge on the facts of a particular case and by reference to seven more “archetypal cases” described in the guideline judgment.  When the right factors are entered it will generate a starting point between 12 months and 35 years.  Do it right and be sure to carry the one, and it’ll take you about four hours per case.  It’s basically the Sainte-Laguë method but for starting point.

Now, as the Court of Appeal noted at paragraph 745, “any slight increase in work by busy sentencing judges will be more than made up for by the transparency to sentence calculation engendered by use of the Court’s new sentencing matrix”.

Personally,  I think the Court of Appeal erred in factoring offender star sign into the starting point calculation.  That is a personal aggravating or mitigating factor and including it in the starting point mix presents a challenge to consistency across defendants.

After calculating the starting point, focus then turns to personal mitigating factors.  The Court of Appeal here has latched on to the legislative fact doctrine like a toddler to a parent’s leg.  Sure, that pesky court hierarchy meant it couldn’t do much about the Supreme Court’s warning in Jarden v R [2008] NZSC 69, [2008] 3 NZLR 612 that when it comes to serious drug offending that “[t]he crucial importance of deterrence requires, however, that the reduction in sentence [for personal factors] be a modest one”.

But as Palmer J pointed out in R v Wellington [2018] NZHC 2196 at [8] while deterrence is the legislative aim of the game, just how you go about deterring is in fact very much up for grabs.  Here, the Court of Appeal relied on studies that showed that long prison sentences don’t do a great job of deterring people in the grip of addiction.  Now, whether they should have gone as far as express that finding in the terms they did will be a matter for the wider commentariat (I myself haven’t encountered a judgment with that much swearing in it before).

The focus of sentencing is now – as it should be – the offender’s role and type of meth operation, rather than weight of meth.  There are limits though, and the judgment is interesting for its constitutional dance.  Parliament is boss and the Court of Appeal can’t do anything about the maximum sentence for meth manufacture or importation.  The Court of Appeal can’t do anything about s 8(c) of the Sentencing Act 2002 either.  Parliament says to come down like a ton of bricks on *someone*.  The courts really only have control over what instances they will pull the lever to drop the masonry.  The Court has shown it is willing to take that inch and run 1.6 kilometres with it.

But it all leads to an interesting overall sentencing doctrine from the Court of late, about which more deserves to be written.  This decision shows a willingness to grapple with the realities of meth offending.  That can be compared, usefully I think, with Solicitor-General v Hutchison [2018] NZCA 162, [2018] 3 NZLR 420 where the Court of Appeal threw the book at perpetrators of domestic violence.  Peculiarly, there is nothing in Hutchison itself directly calling for higher sentences, but the decision has reverberated in the lower courts in a way perhaps not intended.  Then there is Setu v R [2018] NZCA 127 where the Court showed a lack of interest in monitoring sentencing drift in its own Taueki guideline judgment.  I don’t know what we learn from all that put together, but there’s something interesting to be charted on it someday about what interests the Court in sentencing policy and administration and what doesn’t; when it will turn to complex solutions and when it won’t.

There will be lots more to unpack from the judgment in the coming days, and even more after we actually know what’s in the judgment.  And of course, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will instead chooses to adopt the approach set out in the surprising two judge dissent.

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