Sunday, November 28

Judges are being surveyed to improve understanding of the ‘life and work experience’

The judiciary is gathering more information on the backgrounds of the judges, including their sexuality and religious status.

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It is not clear if the results of the survey will be made public. (file photo)
Photo: RNZ / 123RF

It comes after RNZ’s Is This Justice revealed that nine out of 10 judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal are Pākehā, with the majority being male.

The only information currently collected by the Ministry of Justice on all judges is their gender, ethnicity and age, although Crown Law collects some information on the legal experience of senior court judges immediately prior to their appointment.

According to a report by Stuff, citing a leaked email to his colleagues, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said recent media coverage it had “created inaccurate narratives” about the composition of the judiciary.

The Chief Justice did not respond to RNZ’s questions about what the “inaccurate narratives” were in the RNZ reports on the matter.

“The statistical information currently collected on the judiciary is insufficient to provide an accurate narrative on diversity within the judiciary. The Judicial Diversity Survey has been designed to ensure that more complete information is collected,” said a spokesman for the Office of the Judiciary. President of the Supreme Court.

The survey, sent to judges earlier this month, would gather better information on “the life and work experience of our judges.”

“Questions were asked about broader aspects of diversity, such as disability, sexual orientation, parental educational background as an indicator of socioeconomic background, and areas of legal practice prior to judicial appointment.

“This will allow us to tell a more accurate and complete history of our current judiciary, which the current information available does not do, and to plan judicial appointments in the future.”

It is not clear if the results of the survey will be made public.

Victoria University Adjunct Law Professor Dean Knight had called for “invisible minorities,” including the LGBT + community or those of different faiths, to come together in diversity efforts.

Currently, such information was not collected about the judiciary, but it should be, he told RNZ last month. “We used to have the pretense of saying that the judges could wear the black robes and wigs and be anonymous, because there was this kind of view of the law, which is very mechanical.

“The modern understanding is that the background in terms of values, in terms of life experience, in terms of belonging to different diversity groups, feeds and influences the exercise of discretion used by judges.

“A judge’s background will influence how they do it,” he said.

Despite attempts to increase judicial diversity over the past decade, data obtained by RNZ from the Attorney General’s Judicial Appointments Unit showed that it was still mostly male Pākehā lawyers raising their hands to be judges.

In April, 86 percent of the people who had expressed interest in becoming High Court judges were Pākehā. Only 6 percent were Maori and 7 percent were classified as “other”. Overall, less than a third of the applicants were women.

In the District Court, almost three-quarters of the lawyers who expressed interest in becoming District Court judges were Pākehā, 11% were Maori and 3% were Pasifika. Just over half of the applicants were men.

Overall, 79 percent of judges across the country identify as Pākehā, compared with 15% of Maori, data from the Ministry of Justice showed. In the District Court, 76 percent identify themselves as Pākehā.

Meanwhile, no data is collected on the diversity of Crown prosecutors at private law firms, despite being a condition of their contract with Crown Law.

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