On the defensive, Warren Young

A Passion for Justice
Peter Williams
Shoal Bay Press
$29.95
ISBN 0 90870 463 1

We are fed a constant diet of stories about crime, criminals and the criminal justice system – in news’ reports, in television dramas, in novels and in a range of other literature. Yet the topic continues, it seems, both to fascinate and enthral us and also to repel us. It is not difficult to understand why this is so.

On one level, crime stories are simply morality plays which are not only readily dramatized and sensationalised but also able to be presented in unambiguous, dichotomous terms: truth and justice are pitted against corruption and injustice, dangerous criminals are pursued and successfully captured by the forces of law and order; unjustly accused citizens do battle with corrupt cops. But crime stories also capture the public imagination for a more fundamental and less obvious reason: they represent a threat to our basic social values, and they thus tap into and symbolism our more intangible insecurities and fears – insecurities and fears which are likely to be particularly pronounced when society is undergoing rapid change or flux.

For this reason alone, A Passion for Justice – the memoirs of one of New Zealand’s most colourful and widely known criminal barristers of the last three decades – is bound to have appeal. That appeal is heightened by the fact that Williams has acted as defence counsel,  or had some involvement, in a number of New Zealand’s most famous cases, including those of Ron Jorgensen, Peta Awatere, Terry Clark (Mr Asia) and Arthur Allan Thomas.

However, if readers are hoping that the book will provide a real insight into those cases, or more generally into the strengths and weaknesses of our criminal justice system, they will probably be as disappointed as I was. The first part of the book dishes up some of the standard fare of autobiographies – Peter Williams’ background and his family and university days and his early days as a lawyer. Much of this is rather tedious and while it provides a less than flattering portrayal of Williams as a young man, it tells us little about the legal system of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are a few snippets about the iniquitous divorce law – rightly characterised as “a clumsy and humbug-infested system” – but otherwise little to enlighten or inform us about the issues confronted by lawyers at the time, or how those issues have since changed.

The second part of the book about the phenomenon of murder – drawn from his experience as counsel in somewhere between 100 and 200 murder trials – is written in equally unsatisfactory, even simplistic, terms. Not surprisingly, he identifies as common threads in murder such factors as depression, jealousy, alcohol, access to firearms, insanity (especially paranoia) and automatism or lack of conscious awareness (“more prevalent than the law admits”). But these factors are presented in a naive and superficial fashion. Williams, for example, appears to be largely unaware of feminist perspectives on family violence or on the culpability of its perpetrators: we are told that a man who killed his wife because he was depressed after she left him was rightly found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, and that the judge passed a sentence which was “appropriate and compassionate”.

The complex issues surrounding the social and legal response to family violence get hardly a mention. Battered women’s syndrome is raised, but only in passing and in a somewhat contradictory fashion: on the one hand, he states that it ought not to be a “substantive defence”, but on the other hand he gives an example where the acquittal of a battered woman he represented on a charge of murder was “absolutely justified” because she suffered a complete loss of conscious control as a result of her abuse. Williams accounts of the high profile cases in which he has been involved, and of more general penal reform issues, are scarcely more illuminating.

In many respects, the book suffers from much the same distortion and myopia as typical media accounts of crime and criminal trials. It is full of stereotypes, peculiar assumptions and one-sided accounts which ignore many of the ambiguities and complexities inherent in the criminal court process. Perhaps the deficiencies of the book in this respect expose one of the dangers (or at least the consequences) of specialisation as a criminal defence lawyer. Counsel are required to act as their clients’ spokesperson, and to argue for a version of reality presented to them by those clients for the consumption of the court and the jury.

While that may not lead them wholly to suspend disbelief, it can easily lead to an undue inclination to identify with their clients, to perceive the existence of corrupt police practices and to believe that injustices have been done.  This perhaps explains why, although the book describes a number of alleged instances of unjustified convictions, or convictions resulting from unfair court practices, there are no parallel cases of unjustified acquittals; these are merely described as victories. It is only to be expected that defence counsel will develop such a perspective, and we should not impugn them for doing so. That is the nature of their job. However, we should not then expect them to present a balanced and reliable description of the workings of the justice system.

In short, those who are likely to be satisfied with a readable, if one-sided and superficial, account of some of New Zealand’s famous criminal cases may find this an interesting and worthwhile book. More discerning readers who want to deepen their knowledge of the nature of crime and the criminal justice system – or even to understand the tensions confronted by defence counsel in daily law practice – should look elsewhere.

Warren Young is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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