Monday, 4 February 2013

KIWISFIRST'S MAN OF THE YEAR 11 January 2013 Attorney General Chris Finlayson,


11 January 2013 
Attorney General Chris Finlayson, who came into his own in 2012 to become the standard bearer for the new New Zealand, is kiwisfirst's Man of the Year. 

Mr Finlayson had an extraordinary year. His popularity within the bureaucracy and legal community eclipsed that of popular Prime Minister John Key. It was perhaps fitting then that Mr Finlayson crowned his year by selecting himself for Queen's Counsel appointment on 13 December for his "contributions as Attorney General". 

These many 2012 contributions included Mr Finlayson's selection of two Supreme Court judges, settling a half dozen Waitangi Treaty claims, cutbacks on legal aid, crackdowns on criticism of judicial decisions, a regime which no longer compels judges to look at the merits of claims before imposing prohibitive security costs, greater powers and less accountability within Crown Law, and filing more applications in the last two years to bar individuals access to the Courts on grounds they are vexatious litigants than in the last 60 years. 

Though some of his legal reforms are draconian by United Nations standards they have rankled few in the domestic legal community. Part of the reason is the government agenda to promote the New Zealand justice system as exemplary sees secrecy and blind acceptance as necessary design facets. Another is Mr Finlayson brooks no dissent. This message was forcefully made in Finlayson's very public meltdown last year after Tony Molloy QC observed the poor quality of New Zealand judicial decisions was approaching fraudulent results. Though Finlayson privately agreed with Dr Molloy's claim that lack of specialist courts was to blame for a rash of poor court judgments, Finlayson won accolades from the judicial community and the Prime Minister for demanding Molloy turn in his QC credentials for his public criticism of the sick Crown court system. 

Meanwhile, a criminal bar challenge to the legal aid cutbacks withered in the Courts. Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford chose only to send a letter which expressed concern about the threat to human rights resulting from diminished court access, for fear the government would cut his organisation's funding (Rutherford, a sport law specialist, had recently been appointed Human Rights Commissioner). One law professor would only quietly say "When it comes to the law, Chris is saving us from democracy". 

That few are willing to openly criticise the Attorney General is a reflection of his political power, if not inscrutable celebrity. Those that do - as with Labour Party 'red alerts' of Finlayson's deceptions - rarely garner much notice. 

The conservative and gay 56 year old Finlayson was Catholic-educated before obtaining his law degree from Victoria University. Public order has long been paramount to his legal doctrine. He has never strayed from the old boy establishment which indelibly moulded his character and personal loyalties. Loyalties which served him well but occasionally got him in trouble. 

In 2010, the shadow cabinet exposed Finlayson's hypocrisy in claiming integrity is determined by how a person treats their enemies compared to their friends, shortly before the Attorney General threw the weight of the government behind an ill-fated attempt to save his close mate Supreme Court Justice Bill Wilson from scandal at the same time he slyly attacked the Saxmere lawyers for exposing the judicial corruption. Wilson resigned but Finlayson consequently lost his chance to meet his "hero" Australian Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, who - after being engaged by the Government to provide an "independent assessment" of Wilson's conduct to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner - was sent packing with $45,000 in the dead of night after Gleeson determined judicial conflicts were rampant in New Zealand. 

Finlayson had to step aside from deciding the Commissioner's later recommendation to convene a judicial conduct panel to investigate his mate Wilson but not before instructing Judicial Conduct Commissioner David Gascoigne to direct Gleeson not to provide his advice in writing so as to avoid any trail. 

Public missteps are few for Finlayson, assisted by programmes which have tightened the lid on information which may compromise his and the government's agenda. New Zealand may lead the world in court suppression orders but it was only last year the law was changed (Criminal Procedures Act 2011) to invoke criminal penalties for public breaches of suppression. Finlayson is convinced the key to increasing foreign investment in New Zealand comes down to improving perception. Despite fiscal budget tightening, Finlayson has ensured Transparency International's "perception index" rates New Zealand high by financially funding the local chapter and portals prepared to adopt the official line that New Zealand is free of corruption. Finlayson has had less success maintaining the perception with the U.S.-based World Justice Project, whose Rule of Law Index ranking of New Zealand fell sharply in 2012. 

One thing Finlayson can count on is the New Zealand judiciary. In addition to selecting four Supreme Court judges since becoming Attorney General (including Wilson who later resigned), Finlayson has firmly ingratiated himself with the clubby judges by sanctioning new powers by the omnipotent Rules Committee, as well as fronting the watershed case ATTY GENERAL v CHAPMAN SC120/2009 which the Supreme Court used to exempt judicial acts from remedial compliance with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 in September 2011. As the culture within Crown Law fomented increased cases of prosecutorial misconduct, Finlayson relied upon the courts to cover up the indiscretions. Still, the sheer number of cases caused enough panic within the Rules Committee that former member Judge John Joyce QC was tasked by Finlayson and Chief Justice Sian Elias with compiling a hit list of "abusers of court process". These include accountant John Slavich who was three times successful in getting District Court judges to approve private prosecutions of the Solicitor General and Deputy Solicitor General for perverting the course of justice, thereby forcing the Solicitor General to invoke his executive powers to stay the prosecutions. Finlayson responded by petitioning the High Court last year to declare Slavich a vexatious litigant. While civil litigants can wait more than a year for a trial fixture half as long, the Attorney General v Slavich case management conference in early December set a week trial fixture to commence 11 March 2013. 

Judging from the New Year's Honours List, Mr Finlayson can be expected to be knighted soon after he leaves office. In the interim Chris Finlasyon QC has truly made his mark as one powerful Man of the Year whose bad side you do not want to be on.

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