Commentary about the Trusts Act 2019 except the word trust is replaced by tryst

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The Trusts Act 2019 enters into force tomorrow, 30 January 2021.  Make sure you know all about it with this collection of excerpts from reputable sources, altered only slightly by me.

First, Lawlink explains some of the background:

Many New Zealanders are involved with trysts in some way, whether as trystees or beneficiaries of family trysts or as volunteers with charitable trysts. However, despite the popularity of trysts, the law relating to trysts is often archaic and difficult to follow. Over the past decade, the Law Commission has led a review of the law of trysts intended to modernise the law and make it more accessible. This review ultimately resulted in the enactment of the Trysts Act 2019.

Some of that modernisation is timely because “[m]ost New Zealand Trysts are used to hold assets, and historically may not have always had a lot of involvement from Trystees“.

The Act will set out a range of mandatory and default duties.  MinterEllisonRuddWatts sets those out:

The mandatory duties are:

  1. a duty to know the terms of the Tryst;
  2. a duty to act in accordance with the terms of the Tryst;
  3. a duty to act honestly and in good faith;
  4. a duty to act for the benefit of beneficiaries; and
  5. a duty to exercise powers for a proper purpose.

The Act also imposes ten default duties that must be performed by trystees unless modified or excluded in the Tryst deed.

The default duties are:

  1. a duty of care;
  2. a duty to invest prudently;
  3. a duty not to exercise powers for the trystee’s own benefit;
  4. a duty to actively and regularly consider the exercise of the trystee’s powers;
  5. a duty not to bind or commit trystees to a future exercise or non-exercise of discretion;
  6. a duty to avoid conflict of interest between the trystee and the beneficiaries;
  7. a duty of impartiality to beneficiaries (however it should be noted that impartiality does not necessarily mean equality as between beneficiaries);
  8. a duty not to profit;
  9. a duty to act for no personal reward; and
  10. a duty to act unanimously

There are further record-keeping requirements.  Here is NZLaw:

Tryst documentation
Trystees will also have new duties relating to tryst documentation. This should bring a new level of rigour to tryst record-keeping, which can sometimes be lacking.

Each trystee will be obliged to keep copies of the tryst deed and any variations. They will have to either keep their own copies of ‘core tryst documents’ (which are defined in the Act) or to ensure that at least one of the other trystees holds all of the core tryst documents and will make them available on request. If a trystee is not confident in their fellow trystees’ ability with paperwork, they will need to keep these documents personally.

And Rhonda Powell on the New Zealand Law Society website:

Section 4 sets out the principles that apply to those powers or performing functions or duties under the Act (including courts, trystees, and lawyers). A tryst should be administered in a way that:

  • is consistent with its terms and objectives; and
  • avoids unnecessary cost and complexity.

Another option opened up by the Act is the ability to appoint a ‘special tryst adviser’ to advise the trystee. A special tryst adviser will not have the power of a trystee and the trystee will not be bound to follow their advice.

The new rules on exercise of trystee powers by others (ss 67-73) enable a trystee to go further and delegate certain powers or functions to another person.

The other significant change is about provision of information.  Here is Rhonda Powell again:

The Trysts Act creates a presumption that a trystee must make ‘basic tryst information’ available to every beneficiary and ‘tryst information’ available to beneficiaries who request it. However, before providing the information, trystees must consider a range of factors and if the trystee reasonably considers that the information should not be disclosed, then it may withhold the information.

‘Basic tryst information’ includes the fact that a person is a beneficiary, the name and contact details of a trystee, details about any change to the trysteeship, and the fact that a beneficiary may request a copy of the terms of the tryst or ‘tryst information’.

‘Tryst information’ is information that is reasonably necessary for the beneficiary to have to enable the tryst to be enforced.

So what does this mean for you?  Well the Public Trust advises:

If you’re a tryst settlor or trystee you need to start administering your tryst in line with the new law from 30 January 2021.

We recommend thinking about whether:

  • you’re willing and able to undertake the increased obligations
  • you’re comfortable with the increased information provided to beneficiaries
  • the reasons for setting up the tryst are still relevant
  • the tryst will offer the same protection
  • the tryst will still be cost-effective with the extra tryst compliance requirements.

Constitutional meta-principles in New Zealand

The need for meta-principle

In Alefaio v District Court at Waitakere, Palmer J wrote “It is heartening when counsel make arguments based on constitutional doctrine”.[1] Assuming for the sake of argument this is correct,[2] the ability to make such arguments requires a person to be able to articulate the constitutional doctrine upon which they rely.

Lists of constitutional principles tend to peter out around number four or five. People might venture Parliamentary sovereignty, representative democracy, the rule of law, and recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi.  After that the suggestions amount to “be a tidy Kiwi” or “always blow on the pie”.  We treat our constitution like we treat our national anthem: we’re not great on the Māori parts and we only know the first two verses.

This does not indicate the absence of a constitution. We have one.  Rather, what it indicates is a failure of every constitutional taxonomy to date.  I can recall those television advertisements for ACC where the lady falls through the glass coffee table, and they last aired years ago.  But if I can do that, and can’t rattle off Aotearoa New Zealand’s constitutional principles, doesn’t that tend to suggest there’s an issue with the description and articulation of the principles themselves?[3]

Structural solutions will take time. Law faculties cannot be merged with marketing departments overnight.  But the necessary rebranding exercise will face the same difficulty in identifying what counts as a constitutional principle unless there is a way of knowing a constitutional principle when we see one.  Definitions to date have tended to be descriptive: constitutional principles are ‘the rules of the game’, at the level of fundamental principle.  But even that is open to debate: scholars favour their own principles and their own fundaments.  Many even cheat by claiming principles like the rule of law which is a sort of Russian nesting doll of constitutional principles.

The way to avoid this debate is to focus instead on constitutional meta-principles – the principles that inform the principles. They capture the values that underpin the principles of the constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Attaining certainty about meta-principle will in turn assist us in the debate about what is (or is not) a first-order principle.

In this piece, I argue Aotearoa New Zealand’s constitutional meta-principles are:

    • “That sounds like a lot of effort.”
    • “But we could if we wanted to.”
    • “Don’t mention the C-word.”

“That sounds like a lot of effort.”

The first constitutional meta-principle of Aotearoa New Zealand is “that sounds like a lot of effort”. Constitutions are hard work, and we do our best to shirk it wherever possible.  Our constitutional principles reflect this.

That begins with the idea of not getting around to writing down everything in one place. Keith Jackson and John Harre once wrote that New Zealand can “lay claim to possession of one of the shortest and most ridiculous written constitutions of any modern state”.[4]  It is not so much that things are not written down (though there is much that isn’t).  Rather, it is the fact that so little is properly labelled.  Where other countries have constitutional documents we have a constitutional conspiracy; you have to join a lot of dots before you realise it goes all the way to the top.

Jackson and Harre made their observations in 1969. The observant will note that since they wrote those words we gained the Constitution Act 1986.  An Act that purports to “bring together into one enactment certain provisions of constitutional significance” but omits the Treaty of Waitangi.  An Act that simply “continues” Parliamentary sovereignty and in so doing leaving the idea undefined.[5]  An Act that simply points to other Acts like the Electoral Act 1993 and says “whatever that one says”.  An Act that predates the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Supreme Court of New Zealand, and any other number of matters that arguably impact the constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Far from indicating a willingness for constitutional spadework, the Constitution Act 1986 confirms one of the defining characteristics of our constitution is to scrape by with the bare minimum of effort.

And it is not just the writing down that we find exhausting. It is the practice as well.  Aotearoa New Zealand operates a unicameral Parliament because nobody could be bothered going on with a second chamber past the 1950s.

We pay lip service to the separation of powers but operate a Westminster system of government that merges the executive and legislature in a sort of one-circle Venn diagram. As David Baragwanath once observed:[6]

No one really believes that Montesquieu’s notion of the separation of powers applies to Westminster type systems of Government.  An executive which by Order in Council promulgates some 1648 pages of legislation a year and which exercises total control over the legislature is about as distinct from it as gin from tonic after they have been swallowed.

And, for most of the modern period of government in this country, the one branch of government we managed to keep separate we could not even bring ourselves to administer in our own territory. The apex of the judicial branch remained in London, as if in the process of the colonial move the English left behind some boxes, with the result we spent the next 160 years without a tin-opener.  Robert Stout thought this indicated a lack of sense: “The English,” he wrote, “are not, like the French, a logical people.  The existence of the final Colonial Court of Appeal sitting in London, with Judges not appointed by the Colonies, is a proof of the statement”.[7]

Proof, too, I submit, of an abiding laziness when it comes to matters constitutional. An indigenous apex court sounds like a lot of effort.  That is why it only took a mere 100 years after Stout wrote those words for the Supreme Court of New Zealand to finally get out of bed, having hit the constitutional snooze button 5,840,000 times.[8]  Not so much a constitutional moment whose time had come, but a constitutional bus the country chased down the street.

And, lastly, the continued avoidance of true recognition of, and accountability to, Māori within New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. We have had literally decades where it has been impossible to plead ignorance.  And yet we have not made changes at the constitutional level.  True, it is also likely to be a product of pathologies more serious than laziness, but it is another mark in the ledger for my thesis.

As a result, I say that “that sounds like a lot of effort” is a constitutional meta-principle. One cannot understand the constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand without understanding that it is made and administered by a society not willing to “do the mahi”.

“But we could if we wanted to.”

The second constitutional meta-principle of Aotearoa New Zealand is “but we could if we wanted to”. It underpins our constitutional obsession with theoretical powers that are never exercised.  It acts both as a touchstone for Parliamentary sovereignty and a psychological comfort blanket for those who fear that sovereignty.  It informs how the constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand is in large part a truce of institutions maintained by the belief of each that they would be the victor should constitutional push come to critical shove.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Parliament is sovereign.[9] Parliament makes the law and the courts apply it – “whether the Courts think it is sensible or not”.[10]  Parliament’s law-making power extends to making bad law, unfair law, and unjust law.  That includes the power to enact legislation ordering the death of every blue-eyed baby, or red-haired child.[11]  “We won’t”, says Parliament, “but we could if we wanted to.”

At the same time, courts’ commitment to applying legislation wavers at the same extremes. “Some common law rights presumably lie so deep that even Parliament could not override them”, said Cooke J.[12]  “We won’t go rogue this time,” say the Courts, “but we could if we wanted to.”

The same type of uneasy relationship can be found in other corners of our constitution. Everyone believes the Governor-General acts on advice.  As Sir Michael Hardie-Boys described it: “I do as I am advised, which is a constitutional euphemism for doing as I am told”.[13]  But even in doing that the Governor-General retains the dream that maybe, just maybe, they could act differently.  In the same speech, Sir Michael said:[14]

I no longer exercise an independent judgement – although I enjoy the thought that like the razor strap my father kept in the hall cupboard, I could if I really had to.

In other words, “he could if he wanted to”.

I want to be clear. The “but we could if we wanted to” meta-principle is not to be mistaken for “go on, if you think you’re hard enough”.  It is not a meta-principle founded on aggression, where constitutional balance is maintained through fear of what another constitutional actor might do if one oversteps.  Rather, it is founded on insecurity and self-delusion.  Institutions reassure themselves that, despite their comparative impotence, if something was truly important enough then they could do something about it.  The meta-principle still maintains balance in its own way by permitting institutions to rationalise as a strength their compliance with expectations even in difficult situations.  And in doing so, this meta-principle informs a number of important constitutional principles for Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Don’t mention the C-word.”

The third constitutional meta-principle of Aotearoa New Zealand is “don’t mention the C-word”. Whatever you do, don’t acknowledge that something is constitutional.  It can be legal, political, or societal.  It just can’t be called constitutional.

At first blush, this might be thought of as a contradiction in terms. Constitutional principles can hardly be informed by a meta-principle that demands a lack of constitutional-ness.  But the meta-principle is concerned with labels, not substance.  Constitutional principles will, by definition, concern the constitution; they just can’t say they do.  The only thing worse than having a constitution is being seen to discuss it.

Everything constitutional, every constitutional principle, is divvied up into neat taxonomical boxes in order to avoid the spectre of being labelled as constitutional. So, the Cabinet Manual is a guide to executive government, not a codification of some core constitutional conventions.  The rule of law is a legal concept guarded by judges.  Our electoral system is a political concept.  Our relationship with Realm countries is a mystery known only to MFAT and Dame Alison Quentin-Baxter.

The one exception is the Constitution Act 1986, the material shortcomings of which are addressed above. That document alone is willing to state out loud that it is about the constitution.  An exception that proves the rule, to be sure.  But what you have to remember is that it was the product of someone who studied in the United States and subsequently admitted it was “an experience that changed my life so considerably I have not yet recovered from it”.[15]  And beyond that, even the finest “constitutional” cases disclaim their constitutional nature.  For example, in Fitzgerald v Muldoon Wild CJ hurried to explain that the constitutional law case only really meant applying an Act of Parliament to the facts at hand.[16]

Meta-principles in summary

Understanding meta-principle will help us to better articulate what is and is not properly constitutional, by knowing what underpins them. I do not propose to have listed the constitutional meta-principles exhaustively. Further meta-principles can and should be derived, preferably aided by substantial funding from the Borrin Foundation.

JC Beaglehole once said the constitution should not be “some silk-wrapped mystery, laid in an Ark of the Covenant round which alone the sleepless priests of the Crown Law Office tread with superstitious awe”.[17] And until we identify meta-principle, the sleepless priests will reign.

_________________________________________________

[1]     Alefaio v District Court at Waitakere [2020] NZHC 3118 at [8].

[2]     It is not.  It is deeply irritating.

[3]     Readers in search of serious people who will likely disagree might look to Philip Joseph Constitutional and Administrative Law in New Zealand (4th ed, Thomson Reuters, Wellington, 2014).   Bruce Harris New Zealand Constitution: An Analysis in Terms of Principles (Thomson Reuters, Wellington, 2018); Sir Kenneth Keith “On the Constitution of New Zealand: an Introduction to the Foundations of the Current Form of Government” in Cabinet Manual (Government Printer, Wellington, 2017); or “Chapter 4: Fundamental constitutional principles and values of New Zealand law” in Legislation Guidelines: 2018 edition (Legislation Design and Advisory Committee, Wellington, 2018).  I disagree with all of these people and you should listen to me instead.

[4]     Keith Jackson and John Harre New Zealand (1969) at 73.

[5]     Constitution Act 1986, s 15.

[6]     WD Baragwanath “FW Guest Memorial Lecture: The Dynamics of the Common Law” (1987) 6 Otago Law Review 355 at 357.  Footnotes omitted.

[7]     Robert Stout “Appellate Tribunals for the Colonies” (1904) 2 CL Rev 3 at 4.

[8]     Assuming a standard iPhone nine minute snooze period, and excluding leap years.

[9]     See for example Tannadyce v Commissioner of Inland Revenue [2011] NZSC 158, [2012] 2 NZLR 153 at [3]; Hoani Te Heuheu Tukino v Aotea District Maori Land Board [1941] NZLR 590 (PC) at 595.

[10]    Christchurch Readymix Concrete v Canterbury Regional Council (2011)16 ELRNZ 748 at [14].

[11]    AV Dicey’s childhood bully had blue eyes and red hair.  These two examples have stuck with constitutional scholars ever since.

[12]    Taylor v New Zealand Poultry Board [1984] 1 NZLR 394 (CA) at 398.

[13]    Michael Hardie-Boys “Reflections on the last 50 years of the law and law school” (2000) 31 VUWLR 37 at (internal pagination 2).

[14]    Michael Hardie-Boys “Reflections on the last 50 years of the law and law school” (2000) 31 VUWLR 37 at (internal pagination 2).

[15]    Geoffrey Palmer “The provision of legal services to government” (2000) 31 VUWLR 65 at (internal pagination 2).

[16]    Fitzgerald v Muldoon [1976] 2 NZLR 615 (SC) at 622.

[17]    JC Beaglehole “The Old Empire and the New” in New Zealand and the Statute of Westminster: Five Lectures (Victoria University College, Wellington, 1944) at 50.

Martial law “unable to be accessed by most New Zealanders”

New Zealanders’ ability to access military justice is under threat, according to a New Zealand Law Foundation backed study released today.  Decades of under-funding and spiralling costs of litigation mean that New Zealand risks finding itself unprepared should it have to declare martial law.

The study found that a credible and effective system of military justice depends on sufficient funding, as well as legislation permitting high degrees of discretion and caprice.  But resourcing for the necessary legal infrastructure has not kept pace with developments in other areas of law, and the current laws on the books may lead at best to only partial repression of the civil legal system.

“Our research has shown that the cost of a summary trial and the attendant execution by firing squad is now unaffordable for anyone earning less than $125,000 per year,” said lead researcher Courtney Marshall.

Meanwhile, figures show the simplest of proceedings is likely to take over fifteen months to reach a political show trial, even under active case management procedures.  Ms Marshall said this should be a warning sign for anyone expecting martial law to operate seamlessly immediately upon its declaration.

“Things going well, we might be able to suspend habeas corpus for about a fortnight but to sustain that beyond that time will likely come at the cost of other aspects of our response, such as abolition of the right to silence.”

Screen Shot 2020-12-20 at 3.32.59 PM

The Director of the University of Otago Legal Issues Centre said the findings were unsurprising.

“Events such as this year’s Alert Level 4 lockdown have shown us the tremendous capacity of the civil service to adapt to unprecedented circumstances and produce a comprehensive emergency response at short notice.  However, this study shows that the potential for our armed forces to achieve a similar result has been severely degraded by years of peacekeeping missions, disaster relief, and minding blue cod in the Southern Ocean.”

The study’s full list of recommendations is available online and includes:

  • Amendments to the Code of Military Justice to ensure it meets standards of international best practice.
  • Increasing the rates for military legal aid lawyers, which have not been increased since 1991.
  • A public information campaign to increase awareness of the legal rights martial law will not afford people.
  • Designating gathering points for members of the civilian judiciary to enable them to be rounded up more efficiently.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said that many of the questions raised by the study would be best addressed to the military sub-junta that will operate in place of the Rules Committee upon declaration of martial law.  Consistent with her role under martial law, the Chief Justice was unavailable for comment.

A public law fortune teller

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a godforsaken glorified meme account must have “merch”.  So, if you cared to make a public law fortune teller like the one in the picture, then you could download it by clicking this link.  I used the template from this site to create it for a Secret Santa present where we weren’t allowed to spend money.  It’s a Powerpoint file but it prints nicely on A4.

Article titles about Rylands v Fletcher arranged so they sound like an increasingly tired film franchise

Original

The original.  A surprise sleeper hit in the summer of 1868.  Box office returns exceeded expectations pleasing studio execs who greenlighted a sequel.  

 

The merits of Rylands v Fletcher

The sequel written by the same screenwriters as the original that shamelessly cribbed plotlines from Dickens and focused on the relationship between the main characters.  Did good numbers on DVD sales. 

 

The changing fortunes of Rylands v Fletcher

A second sequel that focuses on the lives of Rylands and Fletcher after the decision of the House of Lords.  Notable for its extended training montage as Rylands trains in a Venetian assassin academy having sworn revenge on Lord Cairns.  Historians of the franchise mark this as the point at which the wheels started to fall off. 

 

Whither Rylands v Fletcher

Tells the origin story of Rylands v Fletcher.  Stars the original actors but uses de-ageing software to allow them to portray themselves as young men.  The plot details a young Fletcher rebelling against a family history of mining, and a young Rylands overcoming a childhood fear of reservoirs.  

 

Rylands v Fletcher in Oregon

The road trip movie that nobody asked for.  The script was originally “Rylands v Fletcher in the French Riviera” before a series of studio tax breaks shifted filming to the Pacific North West.  Released directly to streaming services.  

 

Requiem for Rylands v Fletcher

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this dark meditative piece is well-remembered for the audio motif of dripping water.  Filmed in Swedish, with English subtitles.  

 

Liability without fault - Rylands v Fletcher revitalised

An all-woman remake of the original Rylands v Fletcher.  This film earned Meryl Streep her second nomination for an Academy Award.  

 

Abnormally dangerous

The franchise reimagined for the modern era as a Borat-style mockumentary.  When Rylands and Fletcher embark on a tour of American reservoirs as part of a travel show, a series of comic misunderstandings seems them pursued through the mid-West by Hells Angels.  

 

Rylands v Fletcher - fire in polystyrene factory

Intended as a dark comedy, “Rylands v Fletcher – fire in polystyrene factory” was widely panned by critics as “in unbelievably poor taste” and “deeply offensive to victims of polystyrene factory fires and the families of victims of polystyrene factory fires”.  Banned in the European Union.  

 

Rylands lives

Set in a world where a super-virus has turned John Rylands into a zombie overlord.  Thomas Fletcher must lead a rag-tag bunch of survivors through a series of tunnels in his mine into the abandoned reservoir where Rylands holds court in order to assassinate him and save the human race.  

Members of Supreme Court regretting choosing to bubble together

Empty halls
The halls of the Supreme Court are empty as the Justices give each other the silent treatment.

 

Eight days in to the nationwide category 4 lockdown, tensions are running high within the Supreme Court “bubble”.  Having opted to isolate together within the Supreme Court building in Wellington, the six members of the Court now face at least three more increasingly fractious weeks together.

The initial decision to spend the four weeks together was driven by the Chief Justice’s determination that, as an essential service, the Supreme Court would continue to operate.  At the time the lockdown was initiated the Supreme Court lacked remote working capability as Glazebrook J had lost the charger for the Court’s shared, Ministry-provided Nokia 2280.  That prompted a decision that the members of the Court would form a bubble together that would be based in their chambers in the Supreme Court.

To outward appearances that decision has seemed to work well, with the Supreme Court continuing to issue leave decisions and a substantive decision in Lodge Real Estate Ltd v Commerce Commission [2020] NZSC 25.  However, individual members of the Court, contacting this blog under conditions of anonymity, have indicated that close confinement with their judicial colleagues is proving difficult for members of the Court.

“I’ll tell you what’s not an essential service,” said one member of the Court, “and that’s William Young J playing Kenny Rogers songs on full blast in his chambers.  Or the time when Ellen France J did the shopping and bought blue top milk.”

“I could be at home with my family during all of this,” said another.  “Instead, the Chief Justice is making us all bed down every night in sleeping bags spread out around the seats in the courtroom.”

“The only reason that there weren’t five separate judgments in Lodge Real Estate was because we had written most of it before the lockdown.  It’s like the old saying about joining an appellate court: at the start of your time you figure you must be wrong, but the longer you spend the more you realise that no it’s actually your colleagues.”

The Ministry of Justice is currently exploring upgrading the Court’s Netflix subscription so that it can be played on more than two devices at the same time.  This is said to be essential as “everyone but Helen has seen season three of The Crown and no one wants to watch it again”.

In a further letter to the profession expected to be issued on Monday, Chief Justice Winkelmann will write that “New Zealand courts must continue to uphold the
rule of law and to ensure that fair trial rights, the right to natural justice and rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act are upheld, as well as ensuring that no dirty dishes are left in the common room sink, Ellen.”

 

On sparrows

My workplace was already dealing with a public health crisis when Covid-19 began its acceleration here.  A sparrow had made its way into our fancy glass atrium and had taken up residence.  It’s been there four weeks now, living off crumbs of Huntley and Palmers set out as bait to lure it towards a cage it otherwise ignores.  Its leisure activities mainly seem to involve shitting over our furniture.  Most recently, some enterprising solicitor propped up an upside down cardboard file box on a binding comb.  String tied to the binding comb could be yanked to make the box pounce.  A sort of Wile E Coyote solution designed by desperate lawyers.

Now, almost all of us have been sent to work from home.  I assume the sparrow is still there.  Defiant.

Me, I’m following orders.  It seems the only responsible thing to do.  Obtaining permission to return to the office for a day now requires an originating application and supporting affidavit.  Presumably when we reach category 4 shortly it will be all but impossible.

In a time of a large scale public health crisis, the market for nonsense should be small.  I am loathe to contribute to the supply.  Somehow, tweeting that barristers wigs are to be lengthened to mid-arm (coiffing to your elbow) doesn’t seem like the order of the day.  (Besides, all the easy jokes have been taken.  Clean hands; we get it.  Call me when there is something original like the QC seating priority being reversed so that QCs are entitled to sit on the seat *furthest* from the bench, or all opt-out representative actions are changed back to opt-in.)

I was this close – *this* *close* – to writing a whole thing about the Chief Justice calling on all practitioners to stop citing cases that are over 70 years old.  But with the announcements today it all seems pretty naive.

It would be nice if we could carry on as normal.  I would like it even more if we could  romanticise the practise of law to a level on par with nursing or supermarket shelf stacking.  (Alas, I gave up my early career as checkout chap at Mosgiel New World to practice law; a choice which I’ve long suspected and now confirmed to be a backwards step.)  Law will be essential to achieve a lot of good in a difficult time.  The Chief Justice is right that the courts must remain open even at category 4.  But for each of us, the ability to do some good, even a lot of good, can’t be mistaken for the idea that everything we do is good.  The situation calls for an acceptance of limits and to follow public health advice, which for now is to limit social contact as much as possible.

Getting admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand means that, when faced with crisis, we all have to leap to our feet valiantly and proclaim things like “Even in times of war, the laws do not fall silent”.  Well, it turns out that in a pandemic, the laws do not fall silent but they do have a scratchy throat.  We can all do our jobs while taking sensible precautions.

That will be tough on all the egotists among us, me included.  It will be tough on counsel having to appear by telephone, who lose the ability to share that very special locked-eyes “I’ve no fucking idea what he’s on about either” look with the judge while opposing counsel is speaking.  It will be tough on judges who have to listen to my oral submissions delivered entirely in “telephone voice”.  It will be tough on all of us forced to confront the idea that the judgment we’re reading may have been written by a judge at home and not wearing pants.

It’s not my place to say anything profound.  And I don’t think anyone should necessarily have a sense of humour about something that is all but certain to lead to deaths.  It’s also not my place to deliver public health advice.  But it occurs to me we have two options.  We can be sensible lawyers who follow official advice while upholding our oaths, or we can be sparrows shitting over everything.

See you all when this is over.

Akuhata v R [2020] NZCA 19 – appellate consequences of a failure to engage s 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002 at first instance

Akuhata v R [2020] NZCA 19 contains a reasonably rare dissent in the Court of Appeal.  What is an appellate court to do if there has been no resort to s 27 of the Sentencing Act 2002 in a sentencing decision?

The particular facts of Akuhata mean both the majority and minority can suggest only partial answers.  That means the issue will need to be confronted again, later.  But, for now, different judges point in different directions and speak to a wider debate about the significance of s 27.

Mr Akuhata pleaded guilty to murder.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 15 years. At his sentencing his counsel did not seek to use s 27(1) of the Sentencing Act 2002.  Section 27(1) provides:

(1) If an offender appears before a court for sentencing, the offender may request the court to hear any person or persons called by the offender to speak on—

(a) the personal, family, whanau, community, and cultural background of the offender:

(b) the way in which that background may have related to the commission of the offence:

(c) any processes that have been tried to resolve, or that are available to resolve, issues relating to the offence, involving the offender and his or her family, whanau, or community and the victim or victims of the offence:

(d) how support from the family, whanau, or community may be available to help prevent further offending by the offender:

(e) how the offender’s background, or family, whanau, or community support may be relevant in respect of possible sentences.

To save scrolling back to look at this section later, note that the section is permissive.  An offender “may” request the Court.

A Court “must” give effect to any request made, unless the Court is satisfied of “special reasons” not to (Sentencing Act 2002, s 27(2)).

But s 27(1) doesn’t have to be triggered only by an offender.  The Court has the ability to be proactive.  Section 27(5) provides:

(5) If an offender does not make a request under this section, the court may suggest to the offender that it may be of assistance to the court to hear a person or persons called by the offender on any of the matters specified in subsection (1).

Again, the Court “may” do this.  So s 27 has two ways to be engaged.  Both of them permissive.

At his sentencing, the judge did not make a suggestion under s 27(5).

So Mr Akuhata was sentenced without recourse to s 27.  No one spoke to the matters listed in s 27(1) (nor, as is more common, was there any s 27 “report”).

Two years later, Mr Akuhata applied for leave to appeal his sentence out of time. One of his appeal grounds was the fact that he was sentenced without recourse to s 27.  The majority recorded the appeal ground as being aimed at the fact the sentencing judge had not made a suggestion under s 27(5), rather than a failure of counsel to advance a request under s 27(1) (at [147]-[149]).

In his application for leave to appeal out of time, Mr Akuhata did not provide a s 27 report or other information that he said should have (but was not) taken into account.  The Court of Appeal knew Mr Akuhata was a Māori man of Ngā Puhi descent who lived in Northland.  And it had psychiatric and psychological reports before it as a result of a conviction appeal that Mr Akuhata also advanced.  But beyond that it had no further information supporting the application for leave to appeal the sentence out of time.

Mr Akuhata could establish clearly that an avenue which *might* have provided a discount had not been pursued.  But he could only speculate whether it could have or would have provided a discount.

How to treat such a situation?  The judges split.  The majority (Wild and Katz JJ) declined the application for leave to appeal out of time.  The minority (Whata J) would have permitted Mr Akuhata to obtain and file material he wanted considered under s 27, before the Court determined the application for leave to appeal out of time.

 

The majority view

Writing for the majority, Wild J began by stating that “a failure to engage s 27 could provide a proper basis to reconsider sentence, in an appropriate case” (at [151]).  That has to be right.  It is the same with any sentencing factor that is overlooked at first instance, regardless of whether it is overlooked unknowingly or even negligently.  The whole point of appeals is to fix error.

Sentence appeals require an appellant to satisfy an appellate court that an error exists, of a type that meant the end sentence was manifestly excessive.  To do that, an appellant generally needs to be able to point to evidence (excluding things purely internal to the decision under appeal like arithmetical error).

A failure to engage s 27 leaves the Court of Appeal with a known unknown.  But establishing a known unknown isn’t enough on a sentence appeal: “the appellant must provide enough information to satisfy the Court that the failure to engage the s 27 process has resulted in the overlooking of matters that may have impacted on sentence” (at [151]).

The majority then pivoted to the facts of the case.  In the majority’s view “[n]one of the many medical reports to the High Court, nor the pre-sentence report, contains any suggestion that Mr Akuhata’s criminal offending had its genesis in social deprivation or in any other matter that might have come to the fore in material adduced under s 27” (at [153]).  The majority was careful to state that it did not suggest the reports could take the place of a s 27 report, but rather that their extensive canvassing of Mr Akuhata’s history may have explained why neither trial counsel nor the sentencing judge turned their minds to s 27 (at [156]).

Finally, the majority noted the overarching question was whether the life sentence with a 15 year minimum non-parole period could be said to be manifestly excessive.  It held that it could not be said to be manifestly excessive.  Life imprisonment was mandatory,  The only discount was to the minimum non-parole period of 17 years.  A fifteen year MPI “appropriately reflected the discount that was properly available to Mr Akuhata for his guilty plea” (at [157]).

This last point seems to beg the question, though.  Almost everyone would agree that the sentence actually imposed was correct on the information known to the sentencing judge (including the guilty plea discount).  Mr Akuhata’s argument was that there was information (or might be information) not known to the sentencing judge.  The majority’s reliance on simply the guilty plea discount doesn’t grapple with that at all.

 

The minority view

Writing in dissent, Whata J explained his reasons for why he would have permitted Mr Akuhata to obtain and file the information he said should have been considered under s 27.  The minority view was informed by the importance of s 27 as set out in Zhang v R [2019] NZCA 507 at [159]-[162].  Whata J humbly didn’t cite Solicitor-General v Heta [2018] NZHC 2453, [2019] 2 NZLR 241 but the majority pointed out that he very well could have.

Whata J placed emphasis on the Court of Appeal’s reference to a “right” to address the Court under s 27.  His Honour’s reasoning was that:

[160] The full Court’s reference to an offender’s “right” to address the court emphasises the importance of the s 27 process to the sentencing. For my part then, the failure to engage s 27 may provide a proper basis for reconsideration of sentence by this Court on appeal. It also evident that [trial counsel for Mr Akuhata] did not request [the sentencing judge] pursuant to s 27(1), to hear from any person or persons and [the sentencing judge] did not suggest that it would assist her to hear from such persons. It seems to me then that there is a real issue to be considered on appeal, namely whether the sentencing process was procedurally and substantively unfair to Mr Akuhata because of the apparent omission to engage s 27.

[161] I acknowledge that, unhelpfully, we do not know what material the exercise of power might have produced. I also acknowledge that the information available to the Court suggests that the omission may not be material to the result for the reasons expressed by Wild and Katz JJ at [157]. And it counts strongly against Mr Akuhata that he has not already identified the s 27 information he says was and is relevant to his sentence. But given the procedural as well as substantive significance of the s 27 process to sentencing, as affirmed by the full Court in Zhang, the added burden to the Crown and to the Court of affording Mr Akuhata the opportunity to identify the relevant s 27 matters is in my view justified.

In other words, you haven’t done this properly.  You should have done it better and been more organised.  But s 27 has such “procedural as well as substantive significance” that you may have a further chance to obtain the information.  If something as vital as the s 27 process has gone wrong (in this case, that it has not been engaged at all), then that creates a risk of unfairness that an appellate court cannot treat as probably not leading to error.

 

Thoughts

First, it’s important to recognise that the members of the Court are not that far apart at all.  The majority would grant (at least some) sentence appeals based on a failure to have recourse to s 27.  You just need to show them that the failure had a significance.  And the minority is not saying it would grant appeals on a speculative basis.  All it would do is give greater freedom to try to obtain the necessary information.  If those efforts do not result in persuasive evidence then your appeal may well be dismissed.

Second, the split arose on unusual facts but perhaps not practically rare facts.  Best practice if you are arguing a sentence appeal on the grounds that factor X warranted a discount will be to marshal evidence of factor X beforehand.  That is the case whether it is an appeal in time or out of time.  One would hope that there are few appeals brought on the basis of “I don’t know, what about this factor, there might be something there, how about we find out?”.  The same issue as in Akuhata v R has happened before, albeit the issue of obtaining a s 27 report did not assume significance in the decision: see Tuuta v R [2019] NZHC 2788 at [13] and [19].

But when it comes to s 27 reports there could well be real world difficulties with best practice.  Many legally aided clients will have to convince the legal aid authorities to spring for a s 27 report.  The ability to privately fund a report will be beyond many, which is not ideal considering the cohort who can’t afford a report is likely to overlap substantially with the cohort who will benefit most from them.  But if you can’t get the legal aid funding for a report for a well out of time sentence appeal, then a more generous approach like Whata J’s might be the way to break that impasse.  An appellate court saying it will defer determination of an appeal until a report is prepared could well be sufficient carrot/stick to shake free legal aid funding for a report.

(Of course, all of that assumes that one’s approach to s 27 is that of formal reports.  The section isn’t worded so narrowly: the court can hear from “any person”.  Better recognition of this fact, particularly by the courts, could help reduce one of the barriers to effective use of s 27: the stubborn insistence that everything has to be in a report written by an “objective” expert.  I write that presently as someone who fears he is one of those stubborn insisters.)

Third, the split decision perhaps symbolises nothing more or less than the courts continue to feel their way with s 27.  Saying s 27 is in vogue wrongly obscures the fact that it has taken far too long to start using it to its full potential.  But its use has been mainstreamed and supercharged by Heta and Zhang.  It is now, rightly, central to sentencing exercises.  And part of that is working out where the limits are and where it will sit in the pantheon of personal discounts for sentencing.

I venture that the majority’s approach applies orthodox “fresh evidence” and “material error” lenses to appeals involving (the absence of) s 27 reports.  And I venture that the minority approach treats s 27 issues as having a substantive significance that means they should be treated differently beyond other personal mitigating factors.

Consider a defendant sentenced for fraud on the understanding that they had not paid reparation at the time of sentencing.  They apply for leave to appeal out of time on the basis that the judge was wrong to find they had not paid reparation (which would have otherwise earned them a sentencing discount).  But they do not present any evidence that they in fact did pay reparation.  It would be unusual if the Court were to permit an appellant in that situation a still further chance to go to get the evidence.  The Court would likely say it should be presented at the time of the appeal and without it it is too speculative to permit an appeal out of time (let alone allow the appeal).  That is consistent with the majority’s approach in Akuhata.  Does the minority’s (and Zhang v R‘s) “rights” reasoning help?  Not really perhaps.  When it comes to reparation an offender also has a “right” to have that taken into account: s 10 of the Sentencing Act 2002 affords just as much right as does s 27(2).  So it has to be something else about s 27 that warrants different treatment.  The task is to articulate what, and to articulate it in a way that can be justified on the statutory language.  In the few paragraphs of Akuhata v R, neither the majority nor the minority accomplish that task persuasively.

Both approaches – the majority and the minority – are choices about how s 27 will be treated and what importance we afford to it.  “Orthodox” is not meant as an endorsement, simply an observation.  We need to decide what role s 27 will play and whether the “procedural as well as substantive significance” it holds will warrant different treatment on appeal in comparison to other personal mitigating factors.  I don’t know the answer to that.  Nor am I the right person to decide.  The way things like s 27 help us not to sentence “caricatures”, though, speak to the importance of ensuring the proper use of the section both at first instance and on appeal.  And dissents like that in Akuhata v R are important in ensuring the judiciary continue to confront the issue.