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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 2. 7th March 1973

From the Courts

page 6

From the Courts

Salient's court reporter, Don Franks, describes his impressions of the Magistrate's Court. We believe: court reporting is important and it will be a regular feature in Salient this year.

Reconstruction of not only the laws and the courts, but of society as a whole is necessary before genuine equality exists before the law. Such a work can only be accomplished by the majority of people in the society, the people who will benefit most from such a change. To this end we will endeavour to point out more fully the real forces at work behind the charade of the courtrooms. Factual cases will be reported in order to demonstrate the various features of class inequality before the law. And if you believe that we exaggerate the evils of our system of justice we invite you to prove us wrong by visiting a courtroom yourself. Because their purpose is disguised the courts are able to be open to the public. It is worth remembering that the useless misery which they hope to create is not so open. It is the private property of the working people and their allies, a smouldering confused hatred which will one day realise its source and solution.

The cry for "One law for the rich and one for the poor" puzzles many people. It seems difficult to uncover the principal problem, the reasons "our" prisons are so disproportionately full of Polynesians and the working class generally. Anatole France grasped the injustice of the situation when he stated "The law, in its majestic impartiality punishes alike the rich and the poor for stealing bread and for sleeping under bridges."

Middle and upper class people certainly have access to the necessities and the luxuries of our society. They enjoy the benefits of labour and also control the means by which wealth is created. For this reason they tend to stay clear of the law, it is basically their law, moulded in their interest as a class.

A few examples of commonly committed crimes can give some insight into the subtle and intricate workings of this concealed oppression. The crime of stealing property is committed for various reasons. Goods or cash may be stolen from basic necessity or necessity induced by the advertisement of products which makes them appear essential to life. The children of the working class are unable to get much money from their parents. Struggling housewives are unable to afford quite basic requirements. And a boring and repetitive job and drab living conditions make the actual adventure of theft itself seem attractive.

The situation of both the native and immigrant Polynesian is a special case. A member of a culture in which property is collectively owned and used is likely to break the laws of a society in which private property is sacred. The concepts of sharing and of placing value on people before possession are deeply ingrained in all Polynesian cultures. They are fundamentally antagonistic to the white capitalist way of life where the cry "It's mine!" is one of the commonest expressions in the language.

Drunkeness and Disorderly conduct are common in an uninspiring society. Again, a meaningless, unpleasant job is likely to aggravate such behaviour. The frustrated rich have large comfortable homes, lavish parties and balls at which to commit these "crimes". The working class, less hypocritically, do their carousing in public, often paying the price of it at the Magistrate's court the next morning. Less accustomed to liquor and more accustomed to settling differences with fists than with words or law suits the Islander appears frequently on drunk and disorderly charges. As is usually the case in New Zealand the Polynesian suffers on two counts, his culture and his class become a double affliction.

The double standard can be seen in all forms of crime and punishment in our country. But to suggest that middle and upper middle class people never appear in court is obviously untrue. For appear they do, but in fewer numbers, and also with a distinct advantage over their fellow "criminals". For an illustration of class discrimination in the courtroom itself look briefly at two hypothetical, but typical cases.

A youth appears on a charge of shop-lifting. He has access to the best legal representation, his parents are willing and able to pay for it. The solicitor will appeal to the magistrate to consider the young man's career, he will point out that the offence was "a foolish prank born of youthful exuberance, a first offence Sir that has been a great shock both to himself and to his parents which he deeply regrets." He will flourish handfuls of testimonials from the local vicar, two city councillors, his employer, a prominent J.P. and "his old piano teacher sir who sees him as a second Tchaikovsky". Perspiring at the brow and trembling at the tonsils the lawyer will inform His Honour that his client is active in community affairs, that he never picks his nose and that "his mother, sir, has a delicate heart condition which the doctor warns may develop complications at any time". This is all bullshit; the magistrate knows it the lawyer knows it and the defendant knows it. But the game has been played correctly and the fine, if any, is a small one. The parents can afford it anyway. In other words the tribal totem demands a certain quota of snivelling at its might and it will find its wayward son not guilty or at worst, not very guilty.

An unemployed Rarotongan girl appears next day on a similar charge. She has no lawyer, very likely she does not know what a lawyer is. Her name is called and she enters a large room with a great throne at one end of it. A policeman shows her how to stand in the little box below the throne. She has previously been told by the police-man to say that she is guilty.

The prosecuting policeman reads the evidence in a majestic and slightly menacing voice. Everyone is looking at her. Suddenly the spell of the bewildering dream is broken:-

"I said—have you got anything to say!?!" It is the old palangi on the throne talking to her. She tries to think if there is something else she should say "guilty" to but the magistrate suddenly is in the middle of saying:

"Fifty dollars and ordered to pay the costs".

"Stand down!" It is finished. Another name is called and a youth from Porirua slouches up to take her place. He is slightly better prepared, for his skin is pink, like the magistrate's.

Various versions of these cases happen everyday. It is not the business of the law to improve the situation. Genuine equality before the law would require a new set of laws, a new court structure and a wholesale reconstruction of society.

Image of Magistrate's Court entrance