Christchurch mosque gunman sacks lawyers

Brenton Tarrant is due to be sentenced on August 24. Photo: supplied
Brenton Tarrant is due to be sentenced on August 24. Photo: supplied
The Christchurch mosque gunman has sacked his legal team in a shock move just a month out from his sentencing - and has now vowed to represent himself.

Australian national Brenton Harrison Tarrant entered guilty pleas to all 51 murder charges at a hastily-arranged High Court hearing in Christchurch on March 26 - the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 alert level 4 lockdown.

Along with the murders, the gunman has been convicted on all charges, including 40 counts of attempted murder relating to the two attacks at Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre on March 15 last year.

He also pleaded guilty to one charge of engaging in a terrorist act laid under the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002.

The 29-year-old's sentencing has been delayed by the global coronavirus pandemic, but last week it was confirmed that it would begin on August 24 in the city his terror attack took place - and the hearing could last three or more days.

This morning, at the High Court in Christchurch in front of some survivors of the shootings, family liaison representatives, and senior detectives, the sentencing date was formally confirmed.

Tarrant's defence team, Auckland-based lawyers Shane Tait and Jonathan Hudson who have appeared for Tarrant since his second court appearance on April 5 last year, applied for permission to withdraw as the gunman's counsel.

They said they had received instructions from Tarrant to withdraw as his lawyers because he wishes to exercise his right to represent himself at sentencing.

At a pre-trial callover this morning, Justice Cameron Mander checked with Tarrant - who appeared in court from custody via audio visual link - that he wanted to now represent himself.

After the judge was satisfied that Tarrant understood his rights to have legal representation - and that he wished to waive those rights – Justice Mander approved the move.

The judge said it would not affect the sentencing of the gunman, which will proceed on August 24.

However, given that Tarrant now wants to represent himself, Justice Mander said he will appoint a new lawyer in the role of standby counsel.

The judge explained to the court that standby counsel will be able to assist Tarrant during the court process - if he wants it. They will also be available to help if he later decides he does wish to be legally represented.

The outcome of this morning's hearing was delayed by an hour so victims and family members could be updated.

Tarrant was remanded in custody until August 24, when sentencing will begin, and the Crown's summary of facts will be read out.

Justice Mander has called for a pre-sentence report and victim impact statements.

The Ministry of Justice, alongside the courts, has been working to put in place "technology options", including a live-streaming link to help victims who are overseas and unable to travel to attend the sentencing hearing and read a victim impact statements remotely.

Last week, it was revealed that overseas-based victims of the mosque shootings will receive special border passes to fly to New Zealand and witness the gunman's sentencing.

The Government said it will extend the border exception criteria to help some offshore victims and support people to attend.

"We want to support our valued Muslim brothers and sisters who were directly affected by this tragic event and understand that some who are now offshore do want to attend the sentencing," Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said.

"We have quickly established a process to allow victims and a family member or support person to come to New Zealand using new humanitarian grounds. This is within our intent for the use of this provision."

With New Zealand's borders staying closed to everyone other than citizens and residents, Justice Mander said there had been extensive efforts to "assess potential steps to assist victims and family members" currently overseas to travel to New Zealand to attend the sentencing.

It was also announced last week that a one-off extension to the Victim Assistance Scheme will financially support more victims of the mosque attacks to be at the court.

The extension enables all victims who were present in the mosques at the time of the attacks to be eligible to receive contributions towards travel-related costs, rather than just being restricted to those who suffered gunshot injuries, and the families of the deceased.

"This one-off exception recognises the unprecedented nature of the attacks and the trauma on all victims who were present. Sentencing is an important part of our justice process," said the Ministry of Justice's chief operating officer Carl Crafar.

Victim Support, which administers the Victim Assistance Scheme on behalf of the ministry, welcomed the move.

"This extension will help victims of the Al Noor and Linwood Mosque attacks to engage with the criminal justice system, supporting their healing and safety," Victim Support chief executive Kevin Tso said.