Chief Justice against sending activist to jail


Long-time judicial critic and activist Vince Siemer, will begin his prison sentence today

Long-time judicial critic and activist Vince Siemer, will begin his prison sentence today for contempt of court following last week's Supreme Court ruling has found an ally in none other than Chief Justice Sian Elias.

The Chief Justice's minority opinion disagreed with her fellow judges, holding that Siemer's rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act to freedom of expression and natural justice extended to his ability to question the legality of the suppression orders made in the contempt proceedings that were before the Court.

The contempt charge following publication by Mr Siemer of an earlier ruling by Justice Winkelman concerning three of the defendants in the Urewera case, which required trial by judge alone. The wide-ranging Winkelman order was against the publication of her decision to deny the defendants a trial by jury, the case before the Supreme Court challenged to her ability to make such an order and Chief Justice Sian Elias agreed with Vince Siemer that she could not.

Mr Siemer said that "Judge Helen Winkelmann had ruled against granting a jury trial to the defendants and issued the suppression orders prohibiting publication to avoid any public scrutiny of her unlawful actions."

Mr Siemer said he published the unlawful ruling to raise public awareness about the rogue judge’s decision to ignore the law and violate the rights of the defendants. Given that the right to a jury trial was once sacrosanct in New Zealand and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the judge’s action was truly alarming and merited publication, but the Solicitor General charged Siemer with contempt of court and jailed him for six weeks.

Siemer appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, where only a dissenting Chief Justice sided with him. Siemer will now turn himself in and serve his prison sentence after a protest outside Mt Eden Prison at 4pm today.

Mr Siemer said today " sadly many New Zealand judges no longer regard the defendants right to a jury trial inviolable despite that right being entrenched in law for hundreds of years to guard against government excess. This important safeguard helped protect people from arbitrary punishment at the hands of the state and the people in power, and was established by the Bushels case in 1670-It is hypocritical that New Zealand holds itself out as a nation of liberty, transparency and civil rights, when privileges that have been entrenched in law for hundreds of years are being slowly eroded because of the apathy of many New Zealanders."

Dame Sian was very clear in her dissenting view:"I am of the view that s 138 of the Criminal Justice Act, which relates to Court powers to forbid reporting of proceedings was repealed by the Criminal Procedure Act and excludes common law powers to make suppression orders of the type made here. Breach of orders made under s 138 may be punished by fine. It follows that I would allow the appeal on the basis that the sentence imposed was one the High Court had no jurisdiction to impose."

However, the majority Judges (Justices William Young, John McGrath, Susan Glazebrook and Justice Sir Robert Chambers who died last month.) supported the earlier decision of Chief Judge Winkelman, affirming her judgment.


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