Queenstown judge probe 'repugnant'

John Brandts-Giesen.
John Brandts-Giesen.
A high court barrister is calling for the New Zealand Law Society's prosecution arm to be sacked after launching an investigation into a lawyer who berated district court judge.

Lawyer Catriona MacLennan is facing a hefty fine or censuring after she called for Queenstown District Court Judge John Brandts-Giesen to be sacked for his comments during a domestic violence sentencing last year.

High Court barrister Benedict Tompkins, who works in both New Zealand and the United Kingdom, has since written to New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck labelling the investigation into MacLennan "repugnant" and calling for her to remove the National Standards Committee.

"They have made an astonishing and inexcusable error of judgment," Tompkins argued.

When contacted, the law society said it was yet to assess Tompkins letter which was received on Saturday.

"Lawyers are entitled to express views publicly which are critical of third party judicial decisions but are expected to use temperate language when doing so," a spokesman for the Law Society said.

Judge Brandts-Giesen last year discharged a man without conviction on charges of assaulting his wife, children and a friend.

In his sentencing he said: "There would be many people who would have done exactly what you did, even though it may be against the law to do so."

MacLennan told the Herald at the time that it was "inappropriate" for the judge to continue sitting on the bench.

Judge Brandts-Giesen's decision was eventually overturned by the high court on appeal by police.

Tompkins agreed with MacLennan and repeated her views that the judge was not fit for the bench.

But he went one step further and called for the committee, which launched an investigation into MacLennan, to be removed. He labelled its investigation "repugnant".

"In my view ... the convenor and members of the National Standards Committee have satisfied that criterion for removal. They have revealed patent misunderstandings of foundational legal principles. They have made an astonishing and inexcusable error of judgment."

Catriona McLennan
Catriona McLennan
He went on to add that the society's handling of the barrage of sexual assault claims was "disappointing" and "have rightly lessened the standing of the Society in the eyes of the New Zealand legal profession and the general public".

In her opinion piece posted by Newsroom, MacLennan said she'd been asked to respond to a series of questions by the committee, including whether she undermined the dignity of the judiciary and whether had she failed to comply with a lawyer's fundamental obligation to uphold the rule of law and facilitate the administration of justice in New Zealand.

"The committee has decided to deal with the matter on the papers, rather than holding a hearing. It can decide to make a finding of unsatisfactory conduct and impose a penalty; or escalate the matter to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal by laying a charge against me."

MacLennan stood by her comments which she said were based on her 21 years' experience relating to domestic violence cases.

"I made my remarks based on this experience and I still believe my comments.

"Neither the law society nor anyone else will ever silence me about domestic violence - or about any of my other causes.

"If I have to choose between being a lawyer and freedom of speech, I will not hesitate to choose my freedom of speech."

When contacted Beck said she was not able to comment about specific cases, but said generally, "a lawyers standards committee will commence an own motion investigation when any matter of which it becomes aware appears to indicate that there may have been misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct on the part of a lawyer".

Lawyers are entitled to express views publicly which are critical of third party judicial decisions but are expected to use temperate language when doing so, she said.

A lawyer subjected to an investigation may continue to practice unless deemed otherwise by the Lawyers Disciplinary Tribunal.

Of the approximate 1500 complaints concluded each year by the Lawyers Complaints Service around 40 were referred to the Tribunal.

Of the nine members on the committee, seven were lawyers and two were non-lawyers.

"In relation to the letter from Mr Tompkins, a response will be made direct to Mr Tompkins in due course. As you will appreciate the New Zealand Law Society has not yet had time to properly consider the contents of that letter which was received yesterday."

Comments

C MacLennan is sure of public support. The judge needed to be challenged. Sensible Sentencing didn't.