Justice in the Rear-View Mirror

When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.[1]

Covid-19 has forced the Courts to adopt new ways of working in the lock-down environment.

Before the advent of Covid-19 the Court system in New Zealand operated as it has for decades – a paper-based system based on the courthouse as a physical meeting place, bringing together large numbers of people in a central location. It may be described as the “in person” or “physical presence” model with the “Courthouse as a Place”. The Courthouse has been symbolic of justice delivery, often an imposing temple-like structure with solid emblems representing the majesty of the law and the delivery of just outcomes and firm retribution for the wicked.

The threat posed by Covid-19 to public safety and to the community at large along with a lock-down preventing movement and gatherings has challenged that model. It has required change and that change has had to be implemented quickly so that essential justice services might still be delivered.

In some respects the “Courthouse as a Place” model still prevails. Courtrooms throughout the country have the ability to hear cases remotely using Virtual Meeting Room technology – a significant movement forward from the earlier use of Audio-Visual links (AVL) that have been in place for some years. 220 virtual meeting rooms have been set up across 267 court locations and these are being increased. More collaboration tools are anticipated and the number of virtual private network connections to the Court system have increased from 500 to over 2000.

In addition a form of electronic filing of court papers has been implemented although this is by no means a full-featured e-filing regime.

For a number of reasons it is not possible to conduct a full scale judge alone criminal trial remotely without the consent of the defendant, although under the present law it is possible to conduct a civil hearing using remote technology.

Nevertheless, the speed with which the Ministry and the Judiciary have moved to put these systems in place is admirable. It shows what can be done to implement new communications technologies within the justice system. Although what has been provided is by no means perfect, nor is it as wide ranging as those of us who favour greater use of technology in the justice system would like, it is a start – a proof of concept forced on us by necessity. It is something upon which the Court system could and should build to make justice more available and accessible in the future.

Before Covid-19 forced changes upon the system, there was no disaster plan for the circumstances that have been presented. The Spanish influenza epidemic of the early 20th century could provide no answers to the problems facing the Courts. There was, in fact, no Plan B. But Plan B – or at least the beginnings of it – are now in place.

The problem is that these innovations, developed as they have been to meet the challenges of delivering justice in a lockdown, are seen as temporary. At the end of the Covid-19 emergency  we in New Zealand will return to “physical presence” model conducted in courthouses throughout the country. It is argued that courthouses serve an important role as the local face of justice for communities.

The suggestion is that the use of technology is not how justice should be delivered in New Zealand. At the moment the problem is that the use of technology has been forced upon us, like it or not, and the solutions arising should not be discarded as no longer fit for purpose or a temporary emergency expedient.

In the overall scheme of things the issue of remote access and videoconferencing is a small part of a much bigger picture that involves the digitization of the Court record. There are already solutions available for this such as that offered by Caselines and about which I was talking back in 2013!

But remote access and digital presence have been dismissed based on the perception that a digital Court system does not – cannot – replicate the level of public and community engagement in the processes of justice and it can’t really replicate the public understanding that flows from a Court house based system for justice. The current use of digital technology has been forced upon the Courts – a stopgap measure; a temporary expedient.

The view is that the “in person” model involving a face to face exchange involving the Judge, counsel and the defendant is important, along with the presence of the Court as a place where the community comes together to provide support for victims and for defendants. It is argued that it is by way of those opportunities for early interventions which can prevent re-offending and subsequent re-engagement with the criminal justice system. I gather that this approach is based on research done by a Professor Ian Lambie and to which Chief Justice referred in her paper to the Criminal Bar Association Conference in 2019.

The concern is that there seems to be an overuse of AVL which is considered lacking in the richness of the information that can be passed between people in a face to face situation. There is unhappiness with the increased use of AVL that the Covid 19 crisis has made necessary but it is recognized it a necessity.

In many respects I consider that the these views about AVL and remote hearings, informed in part by the view of Professor Lambie, are as much cultural as anything else. The majority of the judiciary, myself included, have grown up with the “in presence” model. It is what we are used to. The reality is that more and more people are becoming used to getting their information remotely and are able to make the necessary adjustments in their cognitive and reactive thinking. The human race is known for its ability to adapt and lawyers and judges must be part of this adaptation.

So where does this leave us? There are a number of realities that we have to face. The first is that whether we like it or not we are in the middle of a revolutionary process – and not a political revolution but a revolution that will affect our entire society. We simply will not return to the world as it was in December 2019. All will change – change utterly.

We have to recognize that the post-Covid-19 world will be a different one from that to which we are used. And the realities of the revolution will not become apparent for some considerable time. My own view is that there will be social disruption and dislocation that will continue until at least the end of 2021. Around about then we may see some form of stability – I do not use the word “normalcy” because that suggests a return. There will be no return.

As a result of the circumstances that have been forced upon us we have had to adapt to new methods of communication and information exchange. A whole older generation a few weeks ago thought an email was the cutting edge of technology. Within a very short period of time they have discovered that video calling their friends and family is not some black art for which they need a computer technician.

If there are lawyers and Judges who have made that discovery, they will then likely make the mental jump and ask why on earth the same thing cannot be usefully done in a court. Digital systems and remote hearings may not be the way for all cases but they can be used for many and may provide a more effective, relevant, accessible, versatile justice system than we had before.

Although I know that some of the arguments in favour of the “in person” “Courthouse as a Place” model are based upon elements of the Rule of Law and the importance of full engagement and the symbolic trappings surrounding the administration of Justice, the changes that have been forced upon us demonstrate the fragility and brittleness of those arguments and indeed of the system itself.

But to say that it will be “business as usual” once things settle down, to suggest a full return to the clumsy, archaic, rear view system that has been so much a part of the past ignores the fact that there are effective technological system for the delivery of justice services.

Covid 19 and the lockdown forced the Courts to scramble for solutions to important services that they provide. Why? Because there was no Plan B. The Covid 19 crisis demonstrated that it was unacceptable to argue that “this is the only way because it is the way that we have done it.”

What the Covid 19 crisis has done is forced us to recognize that we must have alternatives. There will be other crises in the future that will require us to move fast and break things. We should always have a Plan B and one that can be deployed seamlessly and easily to whatever threats arise. Remote hearings and greater use of technology form part of that Plan B, have been deployed and can be improved and developed further.

The ball of opportunity has been placed before us. It may be, if we pick it up, there may be a few stumbles and a few drops. Better that than never to have picked up the ball at all.


[1] McLuhan, M. and Q. Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Co-ordinated by J. Agel. (1967). New York, London, Toronto: Bantam Books. pp 74 – 75.

The culture of idealised individualism

I subscribe to the New Zealand Herald. I like to read it while I am having breakfast. In these days of a Covid 19 lockdown I can read the paper a bit more thoroughly than I might normally before hitting the Auckland gridlock on the way to work.

But one columnist I do enjoy reading is Mr Simon Wilson. He writes clearly and argues well for his point of view, because his columns are, after all, just his opinion. I don’t often agree with him. I find he tends to be a bit preachy, a bit righteous, at times a bit of a high-horsed moralist. Certainly much of his thinking is to the left of centre. He seems to support the leftist Auckland Council and our slightly left of centre Government. And that is fine. This is a democracy and he is entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to express it as I am mine.

In the Herald of 2 April he focussed his sights upon the United States and it was a little difficult to work out whether he was just plain good old Kiwi anti-American or if he deplored the US political and social system. Having read the article several times I think it is the latter and in many respects I agree with him. For whatever reason – and there are many – US society has become polarised into different clusters or belief and opinion to the point that the consensus which was a characteristic of US politics and life a few decades ago has vanished.

However, one thing I must take issue with is his sneering dismissal of individualism. He says

“Then there’s the American culture of idealised individualism. You’re not taking my gun from me and you’re not going to tell me where I can go. Stay safe? Be kind? Don’t make me laugh.”

Before I express my answer let me provide a bit of context.

In 1964 – 65 I was lucky enough to be awarded an American Field Service Scholarship and completed my final year of high school in a little town in Minnesota called Redwood Falls. It was a very interesting experience.

In our English class we were required to write an essay on the subject of “The Challenge of Citizenship”. Those essays that merited it would be entered in the Veterans of Foreign Wars competition known as the Voice of Democracy. Because not only did the piece have to read well – it had to be spoken and presented.

So I wrote my essay and would you believe that it was submitted to the competition and went through the various District and Regional eliminations and I ended up winning the competition for the State of Minnesota which was pretty cool for a Kiwi kid. It also meant that I had a 5 day all expenses paid trip to Washington DC hosted by the VFW and got to go to some extraordinary places and meet some wonderful people.

The speech itself was read into the Congressional Record for Thursday 25 February 1965

I differ with Mr Wilson on his characterisation of individualism. Although he locates his arguement in the US, and grabs the low hanging fruit of firearms, true individualism is more than just that. I identified it as an important element – if not THE element – in the challenge of citizenship. It has to do with our exercise of the rights and privileges of a free society and true individualism runs up against the fuzzy collectivist thinking that characterises much of today’s commentary, including some of that put out by Mr Wilson.

When we get through the current Covid19 crisis with all its unfortuante but necessary interferences with our freedoms, it is to be hoped that the importance of individualism will again surface and achieve the paramountcy it deserves.

The essay/speech follows. I had to re-type it from a tattered copy of the Congressional Record which did not scan that well. It was an interesting experience because the underlying “voice” is the same. I didn’t have to refer to the master text that often. Some of the expression I would change today – the reference to Communists for example – but here it is as it was originally presented:

When St Paul was brought before the Roman Governor, he used those magic words Civis Romanus Sum – I am a Roman citizen and he had a right to appeal to Caesar, which he did.

Today, as in the time of St Paul, one’s citizenship is a thing to be proud of, but saying that one is a citizen of a country and saying that one practices good citizenship are two different things.

Citizenship is not flagwaving patriotism, but for us it is identifying ourselves as those who are entitled to the rights and privileges of free men, and sensing the qualities of our obligations and responses to a community.

Now let us discover what the challenge of one entitled to the rights and privileges of a free man actually involves.

Today we are threatened by forces that threaten to take away our freedom. We all have heard of these over the media of communication, so there is no need for me to reiterate the dangers that face us. Yet we are faced by an equally dangerous enemy within that threatens to take away our most important freedom – the freedom to think as we please, the freedom to make our own decisions and to act on them. All the time we are told what to do, what to buy, how we should do this and how we should do that, and gradually we are allowing other people to do our thinking for us. The time will come when no longer will we make our own decisions, but some “big brother” will tell us what to do and what to think. We will be told who is good and who is bad, whom we shall love and whom we shall hate.

Happily, today we are only on the brink of this horror, but it is, nonetheless, frighteningly close. What we need to do now, at this moment, is to wake up and think for ourselves. When  we do this we must not be affected by prejudice, be it racial, political or religious, and above all we must stick to our decisions once we have made them. If our ideas differ from those of the majority and if we truly and genuinely believe in them, then we must stick to them as did the American colonists more than 175 years ago.

Individualism is a keynote of our society and it must be maintained by sustaining freedom of thought, and it is up to the good citizen to preserve this freedom as well as all the others. By upholding these freedoms when it is perhaps easier to be passive, which are the rights of every citizen, the citizen practices good citizenship.

Yet how many people criticize the individualist for his different ideas; he is reviled, insulted, even called a Communist. This is the wrong attitude to adopt toward those who use this freedom of thought, and it is this which is challenging us today. We must accept this challenge – a challenge which, if we do not accept, will take away our freedoms. To practice good citizenship we must fight for and preserve our freedoms – the freedom to speak as we please; the freedom to worship as we please; the freedom to live without having to worry; and the greatest freedom of them all – freedom to think as we wish. Preserve them, for if we do not, then we do not accept the challenge of citizenship – for these, as we carefully exercise them, become not ours alone but equal rights of others, strengthened like links in a chain.

Courts and Covid 19: Delivering the Rule of Law in a Time of Crisis

“Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream of things that never were and say why not?[1]

Introduction

In this post I consider the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic upon the operation of the Courts and the delivery of Justice services in New Zealand. I argue that Covid 19 has demonstrated the fragility and fallibility of the physical presence “Court as a Place” model of justice services delivery.

I suggest that technology can be deployed to meet the challenges of Covid 19 and presents us with an opportunity to remodel the delivery of Court services so that elements of the Rule of Law and protected along with the physical safety and health of all participants.

Recent legislative changes following the invocation of the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006 give Judges the power to be innovative in the way in which proceedings may be conducted in this time of crisis. The steps taken now may be an open door to things that previously never were.

The Physical Presence Model

Covid 19 has challenged many of the aspects of and assumptions that we have about the delivery of justice through the Court system. Some of these aspects and assumptions were outlined by the Chief Justice in a paper to the Australasian Supreme and Federal Court Judges’ Conference in Canberra on 20 January 2020.  It was entitled “A Framework for the future; Technology and the Rule of Law”.

She identified elements such as the importance of the Courthouse to the Rule of Law, the court hearing as a public demonstration of the Rule of Law in action and public hearings which exemplify fairness and legality. These three elements are all part of what could be described as the “Court as a Place” or “physical presence” model of the delivery of justice.

COVID 19 challenges this “physical presence” model. The way in which the virus spreads, its apparent virulence, the requirements for reduced opportunities for gatherings and the need for what is referred to as “social isolation,” the restriction on movement of participants based on age means that the physical presence aspect of human interaction in a courtroom in a courthouse render the “Court as a place” model of delivery of justice services becomes untenable. Indeed on 26 March 2020 the unprecedented step was taken to close the District Court and High Court to members of the public whose presence is not required for the conduct of the day’s business in the interests of public safety.

Covid 19 demonstrates the fragility and instability of the Court system as a means of justice delivery, using a “presence” based model. What was thought to be as solid as some of the architectural and symbolic representations of the Court has proven to be at risk because of the nature of a virulent disease and an apparent reluctance in the past to confront the winds of change and take up the opportunities that new technologies present.

Remote participation to the limited extent that audio-visual links allows and the use of electronic books – a digital mirror of the old Eastlight file – are a start but sadly are constrained by an infrastructure that is not fit for purpose.

Public Confidence, Responsiveness and Relevance.

Although the panoply of justice and the “majesty of the law” aspects of public performance may serve some ceremonial or symbolic purpose they are not necessary to the proper and efficient delivery of justice services. Indeed the use of those last two words recognizes that in fact Courts deliver a service to the community and for the purposes of maintain the Rule of Law must continue to do so.

Societal lockdowns, social distancing, limitations on movement, proper hygiene and the need for continued cleanliness means that we must look for other solutions for the delivery of Court services. In re-evaluating what it is that Courts do, the “Court as a Place” model may no longer fit social and societal expectations as a result of the onset of COVID 19.

The Rule of Law in our society is essential. We need to reimagine some of our processes to cope with the “new normal” forced upon us by COVID 19. We need to be innovative and proactive in terms of solutions. We need to look at issues in terms of “how can this work” rather than finding reasons for “why it cannot.”

We need to ensure:

  • Public confidence in the system; and
  • Associated with that a recognition that Courts are responding effectively to the crisis; and
  • That the solutions offered are relevant to present and future circumstances.

Allow me to expand on the last item.

Whether we like or not, new technologies have been having an impact upon our behaviour and upon our attitudes to and expectations of information.  All senior members of the profession and the Judiciary grew up in the pre-digital age. We are digital immigrants.  Those who were born after 1985 are generally referred to as digital natives.  They have known no other communication system than that of the internet and are intimately familiar with and, indeed, dependent upon devices for the receipt of information and communication. Thus, their expectations of the way in which information systems are deployed is quite different from those of who are digital immigrants. 

Their attitude towards the symbolism of the court is that the court is a place where the requirement to be physically present at a certain place for the disposal of court business may be seen as laughable, particularly when there are other systems that are available. One must express some concern that if the court process is not seen as relevant to modern technologies and modern means of communication, where then will lie the respect for the Rule of Law?

The assumptions that underly the elements of public demonstration and public participation are all based upon a view that these are the only ways of achieving objectives.  In the minds of the coming generations, such attitudes could be seen at least as quaint and, at worst, as no longer relevant. 

Therefore, whilst I applaud and support the necessity for the care that must be employed in evaluating the applicability of new technologies to the court and to the justice system, I question whether the importance of the personal participation element is over-rated and of diminishing relevance. The onset of COVID 19 places the issue of relevance of personal presence and the ability to be “present” virtually into sharp focus.

Put simply the requirement for personal presence gives way in the face of the health risks to those who have business before the Court. This has been recognised by the fact that the Courts are closed to members of the public whose presence is not required for the business of the Court. Covid 19 present us with a challenge to continue to deliver Court services – for it must be plain by now that the new reality must recognise that Courts provide a service. In my opinion the use of digital and communications technologies allow us to meet the challenge.

We need to recognise that we must reduce as far as possible physical human interaction in Court processes. Electronic filing using the Internet and Cloud based systems mean that physical documents need not pass over a Registry desk and there is an absence of any need to handle paper or other physical objects that can transmit disease.

E-Filing and E-Bundles as a Solution

All courts must have a record. These comprise the pleadings and associated documents and applications relevant to a case. In the past these records of court files were filed manually in hard copy across the counter. This still occurs although in many cases electronic copies may be sent to the court in PDF format as email attachments. In the Disputes Tribunal in New Zealand there is provision for creating an application using on-line forms. The e-document so created is then printed out and sent to the appropriate Court office, simply because there is not a system that allows for an electronic file (e-file).

There is a solution that allows for the creation of an e-file that is readily accessible by the parties and the Court, that can be integrated into a courts management system, that is not “rule specific” in that it can be used within the context or court rules that allow electronic filing, that does not require major infrastructural changes or expense and that has been tried and proven in other jurisdictions.

The solution that I offer is Caselines which was developed in England. It is a document management and collation system that is Cloud based. A “file” is created by the appropriate Court and the parties, the lawyers, the Court staff and the Judge have access to the file dependent upon permissions.

The file is developed as the parties electronically transmit their pleadings and associated “documents.”  Evidence from a number of sources including multimedia can be filed with the bundle. Because everything is held on the one system, all the parties have access to the evidence at any time. Judges can review and make private annotations before and during the hearing.

Finally, Caselines is designed to assist counsel present their evidence and documents in such a way that as each document is reference it appears on the screens of all participants in Court. It can also allow consel to present or refer to documents from a remote location

In many respects this is a neutral element of the system. It involves the deployment of digital cloud-based systems as a means of replacing the clumsy morass of paper that accompanies Court proceedings and enhances the gathering and production of evidence during the course of a hearing. It is not an aspect that challenges the “presence-based” model of the Court although it could be deployed during the course of an on-line or asynchronous hearing. It is also an element whose deployment, although prompted by Covid 19 would have continued use and relevance in the post Covid 19 environment.

Technology and the Asynchronous Hearing

My next suggestion challenges the synchronous model of the Court hearing.

In our present system the court as a place is central.  It is necessary for all of the parties, their witnesses, their lawyers and the Judge to be available at the same place and at the same time.  Thus, the hearing takes place synchronously and must take place within time allocated or any additional time that may be available. 

Bringing everybody together at the same place and at the same time is one of the difficulties of bringing a case to some form of finality by way of a hearing. Even a hearing where all the parties are remotely present via videolink suffers from this deficiency.

Professor Richard Susskind proposes[2]  in his discussions about Online Courts that there be asynchronous hearings, which means that utilising technology one party may give evidence at a time that is convenient to him or her and for the Judge.  The other party may be present in the virtual sense to hear that evidence.  At a later time, that other party would have a right of reply.  It would mean that the hearing would proceed in fits and starts, a process that is not unknown to current judicial decision-makers and lawyers.  It does involve something of a major cultural shift within a system that has become used to having a court case start at the beginning and carry on through until the end – a synchronous process. 

The advantage of the a-synchronous hearing is that it does not necessarily involve everybody being in the same place at the same time. They can be “virtually” present. It is in this respect that Professor Susskind develops his concept of the court as a service rather the court as a place, because technology can allow the asynchronous hearing to take place, even although the parties are not physically in the presence of one another.

The synchronous hearing has been supported in the past because that is the way court cases have been conducted in the past. The focus of the parties and the tribunal is upon the one matter. The model is akin to that in Alice in Wonderland “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”.[3]

The reality is that the focus is never as tight as that. The parties go home at the end of the day and attend to their affairs. The lawyers deal with other matters in their caseloads. The judge works on a reserved decision in another case. In this respect a certain level of ascynchronicity is already present in a Court case even although the matter may proceed over the course of consecutive days or weeks.

The asynchronous hearing challenges the “presence-based” model in that the hearing may take place over a period of time at the convenience of the parties and their lawyers, dealing with certain issues or evidence on a step by step basis. The use of technology – notably audio-visual links or AVL – means that place does not matter.

It may well be that this model of hearing may be more appropriate for a civil case rather than a criminal one. Yet it is my view that criminal cases could and should be considered for full remote presence hearings with perhaps a facility for private communications between client and counsel.

Objections to this method of proceeding are probably a mixture of cultural practice and habitual training. It is never easy to change a “traditional” way of doing things, but disruption always accompanies technological change. In the same way that many commercial and governmental operations have changed process to adapt to new technologies and the saving and convenience that accompany them, so too the legal profession and the Court system must adapt to remain relevant and credible. There is nothing new about the law’s delays. Hamlet complained of them in 1599.

What is remarkable is that over half a millennium later we have a chance to tackle such problems, yet seem to find reasons for not doing so. The onset of Covid 19 means that remote asynchronous hearings may prove an alternative to the unhealthy, physical presence synchronous model that we presently have.

It is acknowledged that the asynchronous hearing challenges the public administration of justice, the importance of the courthouse as a symbol and the court hearing as a public demonstration of the rule of law – what may be described as the performative aspect. Nevertheless it is incumbent upon the Courts to respond to new challenges, including those involving the health of participants. There is still participation. There is still an opportunity to be heard and for a decision maker to actively participate. It does not require all persons to be present in the same room for a Judge to be seen to pay equal attention to the arguments of each side.

In many respects these presence-based arguments are of a cultural nature that have developed over a period of centuries.  They have developed within the context of the availability, or lack of availability, of different systems of communication.  The oral hearing arose because that was the only way in which a dispute could be litigated as the court system was developing many centuries ago. Times have changed – changed utterly and the Courts must change with them.

The Hearing Technology

The provision of AVL for Court hearings is premised upon a “presence” model and the “court as a place” still prevails. There are shortcomings with the technology in terms of quality, ability to effectively communicate and technological protocols that could be improved.

For all participants to be “present” remotely some other solution that does not envisage or require a central location must be deployed. The necessary documents and other materials would be available via the Cloud-based document system described above. One solution that provides a workable model is Microsoft Teams. Teams at its most basic operates as a messaging app but can act as a remote working and conferencing application that allows all participants to be “present” in the one conference area. The only difference between that and a court is that the participants would be remotely located.

Another solution may be found in the videoconferencing application Zoom which can be used for webinars, conferences and meetings. When one reduces it to its most fundamental element, a court hearing is no more and no less than a meeting, albeit of a rather formal and ritualised nature.

Teams, or indeed any “off the shelf” solution such as Zoom would not have infrastructure requirements other than the Internet. It could be run independently of the Courts network. Teams and Zoom allow for the creation and retention of a record of the hearing including audio, video and screen sharing. It would allow for hearings to take place without putting the participants at risk.

Although the infrastructure of the New Zealand Ministry of Justice was deployed, on 26 March 2020 the guilty plea of Brenton Tarrant, the 15 March 2019 Christchurch terrorist, was taken by video link. Despite the lockdown the Judge and Crown counsel were present in Christchurch. Defence counsel were present by video link in another courtroom. The prisoner was “present” via video link from prison. The video may be found here https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12320188

Using different systems such as Zoom or Teams there was no need for any of the participants to have been at any Courtroom.

The opportunity now presents itself for Judges to take a lead in the current crisis and continue to deliver justice services remotely. The invocation of the provisions of the Economic Preparedness Act 2006 and a very swiftly enacted amendment mean that any administrative difficulties posed by the current Rules of Court may be modified suspended or waived. The power given to Judges do not include the power to vary the requirements of a statute, but the provisions of the Courts (Remote Participation) Act 2010 already allow for remote hearings in many cases.

What we do now could provide a proven working model for the future delivery of Justice services post Covid 19

Conclusion

It is one of the functions of the Rule of Law to provide an effective and accessible means of resolving disputes. Inevitably this involves an exchange of information and in the past, that has been what takes place in a court – an information exchange about a dispute that leads to a resolution by a decision-maker.

Communications technologies and digital communications technologies have evolved to the point that a wide variety of means of communication of information are now available. It seems counter-intuitive for the Justice system to rely on one model when there are a variety of opportunities available.

My proposals do not dispense with the fundamentals that underly the Rule of Law. I realise that in many respects these proposals have significant elements present in Professor Susskind’s Online Court but with wider application than small civil claims.

I would suggest that they enhance the Rule of Law and allow the justice system to appear relevant rather than a quaint way of resolving disputes that the protagonists of Bleak House would recognise and would provide workable solutions for the continued delivery of Courts services in the Covid 19 environment.


[1] Attributed to Robert F Kennedy paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw Back to Methuselah where the Serpent said “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”.

[2] Richard Susskind Online Courts and the Future of Justice (Oxford, Oxford 2019)

[3] Lewis Carroll “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland” Chapter 9

The Right to Silence

In 1994 I completed a thesis for a Master of Jurisprudence degree. The title of the thesis was “The Silence of the Lambs: Innocence, silence, self-incrimination and proof burden in the Adversarial/Accusatorial Criminal Trial.” The thesis covered 300 pages including bibliography – a total of 134,821 words. It was a very detailed study.

Every so often the right to silence and aspects of self-incrimination arise in the course of discussions about our legal process. Recently there have been calls to consider getting rid of the right to silence either in the context of police investigations or as an overall concept. The Commissioner for Children, Andrew Becroft, wrote in the Herald about his proposals for modifications to the right to silence. His proposal is in line with powers that the Serious Fraud Office possesses.

This post addresses a wider issue.

What follows is a selection of parts of the thesis. It is important to understand what it is that we are talking about, and how the concepts of the privilege against incrimination and the right to silence fit within the accusatorial/adversarial criminal trial process. My final conclusion is that in fact the wrong question is being posed. Those who favour the abolition or abrogation of the right to silence really need to ask “what sort of criminal investigation and trial process do we want.”

From an historical point of view, the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination seem to have developed from the same essential concept but in fact reflect two distinct and separate principles. The phrase nemo tenetur seipsum prodere[1]was used more and frequently throughout the seventeenth century. The clear concept was that an individual could not be required to be a witness against himself in the sense that he should not be asked questions which could provide evidence of or form the basis for a criminal charge[2]. However, at common law it had been a principle for centuries that an accused person was unable to give evidence in court on oath[3] and, indeed, this situation continued until 1898. That principle is summed up in the maxim nemo debit esse testis in propria causa [4].

It is my contention that in fact the two concepts are separate and distinct and cannot be used synonymously[5].

A difficulty seems to have arisen in treating silence in the face of questioning by officialdom (but not under oath or other form of compulsion) as an invocation of the privilege against self-incrimination. Without extending the adversarial process to the point of investigation[6] such an application of the privilege is unsustainable.

Some writers have expressed difficulty with the application of the right during official questioning or at trial, and have totally ignored the situation pertaining to a witness other than the accused or the impact of the obtaining of incriminating evidence which may be derived in civil or other investigative or inquisitorial proceedings.

The nemo tenetur maxim protects a person who may have committed or be suspected of a crime or offence in two respects. First, that person need not give any information to investigative authorities which may incriminate[7] him – that is which may give the authorities sufficient evidence from his own mouth alone to accuse him or to bring a charge. Self-incrimination was seen as objectionable because it essentially was a form of self-accusation, rather than accusation from another source.

Secondly the significance of the concept of “privilege” is  highlighted not by its existence but by its abrogation. A line of cases in England illustrates where in certain situations provided by statute, evidence derived in one forum which may be incriminatory and obtained by a form of compulsion, may potentially be used in criminal proceedings[8].

The right that reposes in an accused person at trial arises, from the nemo debit maxim. The right to silence at trial – that is to sit back and put the prosecution to the proof of its case – is grounded both upon the nemo debit  maxim and also upon the burden of proof being upon the accusing authorities to prove the charge which has been laid.

Historically there may have been collateral issues involving the likelihood of self-incrimination arising from cross-examination, but it is my clear view that they were collateral only, having regard to the much older concept of disqualification for interest, and the old concept that an accused could not be sworn to give evidence at his trial. The position now is that an accused who elects to give evidence accepts that risk, for he may be cross-examined. Yet he still retains the right to remain silent in the face of his accusers.

In my view, the distinction between the rights that I have described above and what is called the privilege against self-incrimination is highlighted by the example of the witness, (who can be compelled to give evidence as opposed to the accused who cannot), giving evidence in the course of a trial and may be asked a question the answer to which may be self-incriminatory in that it provides an acknowledgement of participation in another unrelated offence. In such a situation that witness is entitled to be warned that he need not answer on the grounds that he may incriminate himself. Thus, in adopting such a course of action, the witness is availing himself of a privilege that arises in the course of his giving evidence in respect of which he is compellable.[9]

It is clear that the definitional waters have become muddied[10] and the terms have become interchangeable.

One problem seems to be in the interchangeable use of the word “right” on the one hand and “privilege” on the other. Although what is generally known as the “right to silence”  has one of its foundations in the principle that a person should not provide the foundation for an accusation against him or herself, the specific right to silence at trial  is based on a more fundamental principle associated with the burden of proof coupled with the historical premise of nemo debit.

The right to silence in the face of investigative questioning is partially grounded on the concept of non-self accusation but it is also based on the historical loathing of the English common law for torture and with judicial disapproval of compulsion, coercion and lack of voluntariness in the obtaining of an incriminating statement.

The true “privilege against self-incrimination” attaches to a person who is compelled to give evidence and may suffer a penalty imposed by a legal authority[11]for failure to answer. That privilege may attach to a person who may not have been charged with an offence or who may be subject to a charge.

In granting to an accused a right to give evidence at trial, an issue arose regarding cross-examination, which would directly impinge upon the privilege against self-incrimination. The right to give evidence carried with it a concomitant obligation to subject oneself to cross-examination without being able to raise the privilege against self-incrimination.

I suggest that the categories may be reduced in the following way:

1. The Right to Silence being:

(a) The right to maintain silence at trial which is a specific right attaching to an accused. It is derived from the nemo debit principle, the concept of disqualification for interest, and the prosecutorial burden of proof. It contains implications for the privilege against self-incrimination and for the burden of proof if it is abrogated.

(b) The right to maintain silence in the face of investigative inquiry. This is a general right available to all and is based on  privacy, the burden of proof of an offence resting upon the accuser and the sanctity of the individual from coercion, compulsion or unfairness on the part of investigative authorities. If there is to be an inculpatory statement made it must be as the result of the free exercise of choice. There is no historical basis for claiming the nemo tenetur principle having regard to the use of the enquiry conducted by the Justices of the Peace following the passage of the Marian Statutes, and the fact that the privilege against self-incrimination was not invoked.

2. The privilege against self-incrimination which is a general privilege available to any witness who is compelled[12]to give evidence on oath and who, if he or she does not refuse to answer, may give evidence which may incriminate that witness and lead to a penalty, and where failure to answer may attract a penalty which may be imposed by law or by an authority having the power to impose a penalty[13].

To summarise my contention on the matter, there is a right reposing in all citizens to remain silent in the face of investigative interrogation and to refrain from giving verbal information which may result in self-incrimination.

There is a right reposing in all citizens standing trial before a jury or a judge alone to remain silent throughout the trial and refrain from giving evidence in answer to the evidence brought by the prosecution.

There is a privilege reposing in witnesses (other than an accused) who are called at a trial or some other hearing or inquiry to give evidence to refuse to answer questions which may involve self-incrimination[14].

Our criminal system is that of an accusatorial/adversarial model. Critics of the privilege have professed an allegiance to this model of criminal proceeding, together with its presumptions and allocation of proof burdens and standards. It is therefore a matter of concern to read the critics condemn the privilege and the right to silence as the shelter of the guilty. In the rigorous legal sense that cannot be the case. A person is not guilty until he or she has been found guilty or has pleaded guilty. If a person has remained silent and is guilty, by a strict application of the presumption of innocence, that person must have been found guilty. That finding must have taken place absent any evidence from the accused.

The question falls to be answered – how then has the system suffered as a result of the right to silence? If, however, a slightly less rigorous approach is being adopted by the critics, and their argument is that people are guilty who have not been convicted at trial, and that this has been as a result of the exercise of the right to silence, the question falls to be answered – what value do the critics then place upon the presumption of innocence?

The point that this makes is that one cannot view an issue such as the right to silence in a vacuum from other parts of the criminal legal process. Although those who classify the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination within the category of evidence do so because it has certain evidential ramifications, such a classification fails to view the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination as a part of the matrix of the entire criminal process. It is inextricably bound up with fundamental precepts of the criminal process – the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof – along with other matters of an evidential nature as well.

Although the right to silence is a convenient target, and may, in the minds of the critics, be easily separated from the criminal process without doing violence to the integrity of the process as a whole, it is my conclusion that such a course of action is not possible. Although the criminal process has developed to its present point in disparate ways, and in response to different stimuli, it is, nevertheless a settled matrix of fundamental principles. To disturb any one of those will render the shape of the matrix to quite a different one from that which we recognise today.

If the critics of the right to silence were to carry the matter to its logical conclusion, the question that they should ask is “what fundamental model of the criminal process do we want” and address the issue of the burden and standard of proof and the inquisitorial system as opposed to the adversarial\accusatorial model.

The privilege is built into the adversarial\accusatorial model. If the right to silence were lost and the accused were required to answer or risk adverse inferences the trial process would shift to an inquisitorial system with its complex of shifting proof burdens.

There may indeed be an argument for an inquisitorial system but if a simple solution of attributing evidential weight to silence or allowing adverse inference to be drawn from silence were adopted, we would be left with unfavourable aspects of the inquisitorial system without any of the protections for an accused that such a system may offer. As I have suggested, the matrix would be destroyed. The whole focus of the trial would shift to the accused and an assessment of his or her case rather than the focus remaining upon the prosecution case. Quite clearly, the burden of proof would be affected. The accused’s account, or his failure to give one becomes the focus and centre of the trial, rather than the strength or weakness of the prosecution case.


[1] No one is bound to become his own accuser.

[2] Especially in circumstances where there was little or no other evidence and in circumstances where prosecuting authorities were anxious that evidence of a confessional nature be provided and available.

[3] Although in criminal trials an accused was expected to speak and engage in dialogue and verbal contest with prosecution witnesses in what Professor Langbein describes as the “accused speaks” trial.

[4] No man should be a witness in his own cause.

[5] Although the privilege against self-incrimination is referred to by Lord Mustill in Smith v Director of Serious Fraud Office [1992] 3 All ER  456, 463 as aspects of a disparate group of immunities gathered together under the heading of “ the right to silence”.

[6] As was the case in Miranda v Arizona 384 US 436 (1966)                             

[7] “Incriminate” is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “To charge with a crime; to involve in an accusation or charge”.

[8] Without any form of protection for the witness in the way in which the evidence may be used directly or the way in which the evidence given may lead an investigative body to uncover evidence indirectly.

[9] The distinction of witness privilege as opposed to the right to silence that reposes in an accused person at trial is clarified and supported by Mr. Justice deCordova Rowe in How Valid is the Right to Silence at Criminal Law (1990) Commonwealth Law Conference Papers 267. However, Mr. Justice Vincent describes the title to his paper as  The Right to Silence Revisited Again (1990) Commonwealth Law Conference Papers 263 when in fact it deals primarily with investigative interrogation which involves issues of self incrimination based on the concept of prodere.

The true nature of the privilege is further exemplified in the English cases to which I have referred, especially R v Kansal [1992] 3 All ER 844 and Bishopsgate Management Ltd v Maxwell [1992] 2 All ER 856.

[10] I shall not inject a further element of confusion into what is largely a conceptual discussion by referring the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which has elevated the privilege against self-incrimination to a constitutional right.

[11] Such as a penalty for contempt, which could include loss of liberty.

[12] By subpoena or otherwise.

[13] The privilege is available to an accused who faces charge A, but can claim the privilege when cross-examined about an unrelated allegation B at his trial on charge A.

[14] All subject, of course, to statutory abrogation.

Challenging Speech

This piece is something of a sequel to the preceding post – “Dangerous Speech” – and addresses some of the issues surrounding freedom of expression including the importance of recognising that the value of freedom of expression lies in its ability to challenge.

Freedom of speech involves the physical act of communicating thoughts and ideas to others.

International instruments, written constitutions and Bills of Rights protect free speech as one of the fundamental rights against State oppression. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers. There is a similar right in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights. These articulations of the right are wider than mere speech and recognize the importance of an individual’s thoughts and opinions that underlie expression.

Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 protects freedom of expression. It guarantees the freedom of expression. It recognizes that there are two aspects to the freedom of expression. One is what could be called the outward flow – the expression of the idea or opinion. The other is the inward flow – the reception of what is expressed. The freedom is not limited to the imparting information. As important is the freedom to seek and receive it.

This is not a comfortable right. It is not meant to be. It is a challenging freedom. It is a freedom that allows challenge.

Free speech does not only allow for the expression of inoffensive, comfortable, uncontentious or unchallenging opinions. Its strength and importance lies in the diversity and contentiousness that it allows.

 One’s commitment to freedom of expression lies in the willingness to allow or tolerate information which is contentious, challenging, radical or even revolutionary. It must be recognized as freedom for the thought we hate – an expression used by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of US v Schwimmer. Indeed the whole history of the development of freedom of expression lies in the struggle for the free expression of political or religious ideas which challenged the establishment and suggested a different and sometimes bloody alternative.

Freedom of expression has been justified with three main arguments that have developed over time.

One theory is its role in the discovery of truth – a justification advanced by Milton in Areopagitica and summarised by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.

“But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.  If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

There are shortcomings with this justification. The first is the implicit assumption that freedom of expression necessarily leads to the discovery of truth. The second lies in our current understanding of truth and reality in a post truth world.

The second justification lies in the recognition of freedom of expression as an integral part of our right to self determination and self-fulfilment as an individual. Restrictions on what we say, write or express ourselves inhibits our personality, hence our growth and self-knowledge.

Current attitudes to freedom of expression and especially to ideas and opinions that challenge those of the listener or recipient lies within the collectivization of thought and expression usually exemplified through what is referred to as identity politics. This collectivization of thought – the automatic subsuming of individuals into a group based on similar characteristics – has as its most extreme example statements like “we are them”, “I speak for all (insert group or identity” and “they are us” – a form of mass identity and collectivisation of opinion that does not allow for nor may it tolerate dissent. On the other hand, of course, freedom of expression is as much for the benefit of the collective as it is for the individual.

The other side of collectivization of thought and expression is the individualization of opinion – ideas and the expression thereof are an aspect of individual identity – a recognition of the uniqueness of every person as distinct from some collectivist groupthink or mindless uncritical acceptance of an asserted truth. Indeed collectivization of thought and expression – the whole nature of identity politics where individuals are subsumed into some amorphous mass – is contrary to the much vaunted value of diversity in society.

These days, diversity seems to be focused mainly upon the importance of cultural or racial groups within society – a challenge to the groupthink that underlies the homogenous group formed by assimilation. Yet in its most atomized and microcosmic sense diversity lies in the form of the individual possessed of individual values, thoughts and a right to express them, no matter how challenging to the groupthink they might be.

Challenging speech should be embraced as a fundamental aspect of individual – not group – identity. To interfere with the freedom of expression dooms us to the collectivist mindset which is intolerable in a free and open society. It may be that the ideas and their expression range from the banal to the radical and revolutionary. What is in fact more important than the ideas expressed is the fact that they are expressed and that individuals have a right to express them.

The third justification lies within Western concepts of democracy and self-government. Political speech is accorded a high value. The free flow of information and ideas informs political debate. Freedom of expression protects the rights of all citizens to participate in a democracy and the Internet has enhanced that participatory ability allowing everyone to have a say despite modern tendencies to argue “alternative facts” and “fake news”. Freedom of expression can act as a brake on the abuse of power by public officials. It can expose errors made by government and shortcomings in the administration of justice.

Challenging speech may be contentious. It may be argumentative. It may be, at the same time, banal. It may even be insulting or grossly offensive. But if freedom of expression is to have any value it must ensure that the right to express insulting or grossly offensive views is protected. As long as those expressions do not incite hostility or physical violence, such forms of challenging speech must be protected.

Within the context of the cotton wool society within which we live this form of challenging or uncomfortable expression may be described in a number of ways depending upon the perspective of the listener. One such classification may be that of “hate speech” – a difficult term and one which I have rejected in an earlier piece, and one which tells us more about what the listener hates than the reality that the speech may engender hatred, ill will or ill feeling against a particular person or group. True “hate” speech or dangerous speech as I have described it elsewhere advocates physical harm against an individual or group.

Alternatively, instead of taking up the challenge of uncomfortable or challenging speech, and engaging in a debate, the listener refuses to tolerate what has been said and attempts to shut it down by dismissing or describing the idea as racist, offensive or inappropriate – terms that I consider to be veto statements, especially the third which suggests a value judgement but fails to identify what particular value is in issue. Although the use of a veto statement is in itself an aspect of free speech, rather I am of the view that challenging speech should be met with opposing, rational argument. The use of veto statements seems to demonstrate either an unwillingness to attempt such level of engagement or a lack of intellectual capacity to do so. Nevertheless, freedom of expression must allow for this clog on discourse.

One of the joys of living in a liberal democracy is to be able to hear, read and consider different stripes of opinion – and the Internet enhances those opportunities. Why should one do this? Because the only way that one can form ones own opinions, values or beliefs is to consider the views of others – assess them, test them, consider them and from time to time challenge them. Indeed, the ability to engage in a challenging discourse is a time honoured way in which to test ideas. It goes back to the days of Socrates and beyond.

Those with whom I deal, and who wish to advance a particular position, find themselves engaged in a Socratic dialogue. This causes them to consider their position and allows me to test my own first impressions of their arguments. I have often shifted my position 180 degrees after a proposition has been tested in the furnace of vigorous discussion. I also like to challenge my own thinking on certain issues. In this regard I find the views expressed by opinion writers to be most helpful – even those with whom I usually disagree like opinion writers Mike Hosking, Leighton Smith Simon Wilson and Lizzie Marvelly and opinion blogs such as The Standard. But it would be a disservice to them and to myself to refuse to read their columns simply because they wrote them. More important than the person expressing the idea or opinion is the idea or opinion itself. There have been occasions, not often admittedly, when I have changed my position on an issue as a result of what I have read. Had I not allowed myself to be challenged, I would not have had this important opportunity. Freedom of expression enables our ideas, beliefs, prejudices and indeed values to be challenged. There is nothing comfortable about this. But it is certainly healthier than occupying a bubble of received and agreeable wisdom. In such an environment freedom of expression means nothing.

Dangerous Speech – some legislative proposals

Preface

This piece was written in April 2019. I sat on it for a while and then published it on the Social Science Research Network. It has attracted some interest since it was posted and was recently listed on SSRN’s Top Ten download list for LSN: Criminal Offenses & Defenses. As at 21 January a copy had been downloaded 21 times and there have been 180 abstract views.

Of more interest is the fact that a colleague in the United States has used the paper as a teaching aid for his First Amendment teaching course on the case of Terminiello v City of Chicago 337 U.S. 1 (1949). Terminiello held that a “breach of peace” ordinance of the City of Chicago that banned speech which “stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance” was unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

My piece, which I have decided to publish on this blog, deals primarily with the position under NZ Law. I had not come across Terminiello but it is interesting to see that it comes largely to a similar conclusion. It is a real thrill that has been found to be useful for teaching purposes.

Abstract

This paper considers steps that can be taken to legislate against hate speech.

 The first issue is the term “hate speech” itself and, in light of the proposals advanced, this emotive and largely meaningless term should be replaced with that of “dangerous speech” which more adequately encapsulates the nature of the harm that the law should address.

The existing criminal provisions relating to what I call communications offences are outlined. Proposals are advanced for an addition to the Crimes Act to fill what appears to be a gap in the communications offences and which should be available to both individuals and groups. A brief discussion then follows about section 61 of the Human Rights Act and section 22 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act. It is suggested that major changes to these pieces of legislation is unnecessary.

Communications offences inevitably involve a tension with the freedom of expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the discussion demonstrates that the proposal advanced are a justifiable limitation on freedom of expression, but also emphasises that a diverse society must inevitably contain a diversity of opinion which should be freely expressed.  

 Introduction

The Context

In the early afternoon of 15 March 2019 a gunman armed with semi-automatic military style weapons attacked two mosques in Christchurch where people had gathered to pray. There were 50 deaths. The alleged gunman was apprehended within about 30 minutes of the attacks. It was found that he had live streamed his actions via Facebook. The stream was viewed by a large number of Facebook members and was shared across Internet platforms.

It also transpired that the alleged gunman had sent a copy of his manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement: Towards a New Society” to a number of recipients using Internet based platforms. Copies of both the live stream and the manifesto have been deemed objectionable by the Chief Censor.[1]

In addition it appears that the alleged gunman participated in discussions on Internet platforms such as 4Chan and 8Chan which are known for some of their discussion threads advocating White Supremacy and Islamophobic tropes

The Reaction

There can be no doubt that what was perpetrated in Christchurch amounted to a hate crime. What has followed has been an outpouring of concern primarily at the fact that the stream of the killings was distributed via Facebook and more widely via the Internet.

The response by Facebook has been less than satisfactory although it would appear that in developing their Livestream facility they then were unable to monitor and control the traffic across it – a digital social media equivalent of Frankenstein’s creature.

However, the killings have focused attention on the wider issue of hate speech and the adequacy of the law to deal with this problem.

Whither “Hate” Speech

The problem with the term “hate speech” is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to define.

Any speech that advocates, incites and intends physical harm to another person must attract legal sanction. It is part of the duty of government to protect its citizens from physical harm.

In such a situation, it matters not that the person against whom the speech is directed is a member of a group or not. All citizens, regardless of any specific identifying characteristics are entitled to be protected from physical harm or from those who would advocate or incite it.

Certain speech may cause harm that is not physical. Such harm may be reputational, economic or psychological. The law provides a civil remedy for such harms.

At the other end of the spectrum – ignoring speech that is anodyne – is the speech that prompts the response “I am offended” – what has been described as the veto statement.[2] From an individual perspective this amounts to a perfectly valid statement of opinion. It may not address the particular argument or engage in any meaningful debate. If anything it is a statement of disengagement akin to “I don’t like what I am hearing.”

Veto Statements

The difficulty arises when such a veto statement claims offence to a group identity. Such groups could include the offended woman, the offended homosexual, the offended person of colour or some other categorization based on the characteristics of a particular group. The difficulty with such veto statements – characterizing a comment as “racist” is another form of veto of the argument – is that they legitimize the purely subjective act of taking offence, generally with negative consequences for others.

Should speech be limited, purely because it causes offence? There are many arguments against this proposition. That which protects people’s rights to say things I find objectionable or offensive is precisely what protects my right to object.  Do we want to live in a society that is so lacking in robustness that we are habitually ready to take offence? Do we want our children to be educated or socialized in this way? Do we desire our children to be treated as adults, or our adults to be treated as children? Should our role model be the thin-skinned individual who cries “I am offended” or those such as Mandela, Baldwin or Gandhi who share the theme that although something may be grossly offensive, it is beneath my dignity to take offence? Those who abuse me demean themselves.

It may well be that yet another veto statement is applied to the mix. What right does a white, privileged, middle-class old male – a member of a secure group – have to say this. It is my opinion that the marginalization of the “I’m offended” veto statement is at least to open the door to proper debate and disagreement.

Furthermore, the subjective taking of offence based on group identity ignores the fact that we live in a diverse and cosmopolitan society. The “I’m offended” veto statement discourages diversity and, in particular, diversity of opinion. One of the strengths of our society is its diversity and multi-cultural nature. Within this societal structure are a large number of different opinions. For members of one group to shut down the opinions of another on the basis of mere offence is counter to the diverse society that we celebrate.

The term “hate speech” is itself a veto statement and often an opposing view is labelled as “hate speech”. The problem with this approach seems to be that the listener hates what has been said and therefore considers the proposition must be “hate speech”. This is arrant nonsense. The fact that we may find a proposition hateful to our moral or philosophical sense merely allows us to choose not to listen further. But it does not mean that because I find a point of view hateful that it should be shut down. As Justice Holmes said in US v Schwimmer[3] “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Our commitment to freedom of expression lies not in allowing others the freedom to say things with which we agree, but in allowing them the right to say things with which we absolutely disagree.

Finally, in considering the nature of the veto statement “I’m offended” or categorizing a comment as “hate speech” where lies the harm. Is anybody hurt? The harm in fact comes in trying to shut down the debate with the use of the veto statement.

Aspects of “Harm”

However, recent thinking has had a tendency to extend the concept of harm suffered by individuals. It is accepted that the law should target physical harm, but should it protect an individual from any sort of harm. Catherine MacKinnon has formulated a view, based on the work of J.L. Austin, that many words or sentiments are essentially indistinguishable from deeds and therefore, sexist or misogynistic language should be regarded as a form of violence.[4] This form of assaultive speech can be extended to be available to any group based of distinguishing characteristics or identity.

The emphasis is upon the subjectivity of the person offended. What offence there may be is in the sphere of feelings. It may follow from this that if I do not feel I have been offended then I have not been offended. If we reverse the proposition only the individual may judge whether or not they have been offended. I would suggest that this element of subjectivity is not the interest of the law.

The problem is that such an extension of potentially harmful speech becomes equated with “hate speech” and virtually encompasses any form of critical dialogue. To conflate offence with actual harm means that any sort of dialogue may be impossible.

To commit an offence of violence is to perform an action with objective, observable detrimental physical consequences, the seriousness of which requires the intervention of the law. To give offence is to perform an action – the making of a statement – the seriousness of which is in part dependant upon another person’s interpretation of it.

An example may be given by looking at Holocaust denial. Those who deny the Holocaust may insult the Jewish people. That may compound the injury that was caused by the event itself. But the insult is not identical to the injury. To suggest otherwise is to invite censorship. The denial of the Holocaust is patently absurd. But it needs to be debated as it was when Deborah Lipstadt challenged the assertions of David Irving. In an action brought by Irving for defamation his claims of Holocaust denial were examined and ultimately ridiculed.[5]

Jeremy Waldron is an advocate for limits on speech. He argues that since the aim of “hate speech” is to compromise the dignity of those at whom it is targeted it should be subject to restrictions.[6] Waldron argues that public order means more than an absence of violence but includes the peaceful order of civil society and a dignitary order of ordinary people interacting with one another in ordinary ways based upon an arms-length respect.

So what does Waldron mean by dignity. He relies upon the case of Beauharnais v Illinois[7] where the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a law prohibiting any material that portrayed “depravity, criminality, unchastity or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, colour, creed or religion.” On this basis Waldron suggests that those who attack the basic social standing and reputation of a group should be deemed to have trespassed upon that group’s dignity and be subject to prosecution. “Hate speech”, he argues, should be aimed at preventing attacks on dignity and not merely offensive viewpoints. Using this approach I could say that Christianity is an evil religion but I could not say Christians are evil people.

The problem with Waldron’s “identity” approach is that is that the dignity of the collective is put before the dignity of its individual members. This raises the difficulty of what may be called “groupthink”. If I think of myself primarily as a member of a group I have defined my identity by my affiliation rather than by myself. This group affiliation suggests a certain fatalism, that possibilities are exhausted, perhaps from birth, and that one cannot be changed. This runs directly against Martin Luther King’s famous statement where he rejected identity based on race but preferred an individual assessment.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The problem with the proposition that the state should protect its citizens against what Waldron calls “group defamation” is that it runs the risk of its citizens becoming infantalised, that in fact such an approach undermines their individual dignity by assuming that they cannot answer for themselves.

Rather than encouraging people to be thin-skinned, what is required in a world of increasingly intimate diversity is to learn how to be more thick-skinned and to recognize and celebrate the difference that lies in diversity. As Ronald Dworkin put it, no one has a right not to be offended and in fact we should not take offence too readily. In a free society I may be free to feel offended but should not use that offence to interfere with the freedoms of another.

Dangerous Speech

It will be by now apparent that my view is that “hate speech” is a term that should be avoided, although I accept that it is part of the lexicon, whether we like it or not. Perhaps it might be proper to focus upon the type of speech that society should consider to be unacceptable and that warrants the interference of law.

Any interference must be based on reasonableness and demonstrable justification, given that the right of freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights Act is the subject of interference. To warrant such interference I suggest that rather than use the term “hate speech” the threshold for the interference of the law could be termed “dangerous speech” – speech that presents a danger to an individual or group of individuals.

The intentional advocacy or inciting of physical harm may be classified as “dangerous speech” and justifies the intervention of the law. It is non-specific and available both to individuals and the groups identified in the Human Rights Act. In certain circumstances – where there is incitement to or advocacy of actual physical harm, the intervention of the criminal law is justified.

The law also deals with psychological harm of a special type – serious emotional distress. That is a test in the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA). That legislation applies only to online speech. That may be a lesser form of “dangerous speech” but within the context of the provisions of section 22 HDCA such interference is justified. The elements of intention, actual serious emotional distress and the mixed subjective objective test provide safeguards that could be considered to be a proportionate interference with the freedom of expression and would harmonise the remedies presently available for online speech with that in the physical world.

There are a number of other provisions in the law that deal with forms of speech or communication harms. Some of these warrant discussion because they demonstrate the proper themes that the law should address.

Existing Communications Offences – a summary

The law has been ambivalent towards what could be called speech crimes. Earlier this year the crime of blasphemous libel was removed from the statute book. Sedition and offences similar to it were removed in 2008. Criminal libel was removed as long ago as 1993.

The Crimes Act 1961

At the same time the law has recognized that it must turn its face against those who would threaten to commit offences. Thus section 306 criminalises the actions of threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm to any person or sends or causes to be received a letter or writing threatening to kill of cause grievous bodily harm. The offence requires knowledge of the contents of the communication.

A letter or writing threatening to destroy or damage any property or injure any animal where there is knowledge of the contents of the communication and it is done without lawful justification or excuse and without claim or right is criminalized by section 307.

It will be noted that the type of communication in section 306 may be oral or written but for a threat to damage property the threat must be in writing.

Section 307A is a complicated section.[8] It was added to the Act in 2003 and was part of a number of measures enacted to deal with terrorism after the September 11 2001 tragedy. It has received attention in one case since its enactment – that of Police v Joseph.[9]

Joseph was charged with a breach of s 307A(1)(b) of the Crimes Act 1961 in that he, without lawful justification or reasonable excuse and intending to cause a significant disruption to something that forms part of an infrastructure facility in New Zealand namely New Zealand Government buildings, did communicate information that he believed to be about an act namely causing explosions likely to cause major property damage.

Mr. Joseph, a secondary school student at the time, created a video clip that lasted a little over three minutes. He used his laptop and sent messages of threats to the New Zealand Government accompanied by some images that linked the language with terrorism, such as pictures of the aerial attack on the World Trade Centre and images of Osama Bin Laden. The message:[10]

  • threatened a terror attack on the New Zealand Government and New Zealand Government buildings.
  • claimed that large amounts of explosives had been placed in hidden locations on all buildings.
  • warned that New Zealand Government websites would be taken down.
  • threatened the hacking of New Zealand’s media websites.
  • threatened to disclose all Government secrets that have not been released to Wikileaks nor the public.
  • warned that obstruction would lead to harm.

The clip demanded that the New Zealand Government repeal or refrain from passing an amendment to the Copyright Act 1994. It was posted on 6 September 2010 and a deadline was set for 11 September 2010. The clip was attributed to the hacktavist group known as Anonymous.

The clip was posted to YouTube. It was not available to the public by means of a search. It was unlisted and could only be located by a person who was aware of the link to the particular clip.

The clip came to the attention of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) on 7 September 2010 who passed the information on to the Police Cybercrime Unit to commence an investigation. An initial communication from the GCSB on the morning of 7 September postulated that the clip could be a “crackpot random threat” and confirmed that its communication was “completely outside the Anonymous MO”.[11]

The site was quickly disabled and Mr. Joseph was spoken to by the Police. He made full admissions of his involvement.

The real issue at the trial was one of intent. The intention had to be a specific one. The Judge found that the intention of the defendant was to have his message seen and observed on the Internet and, although his behaviour in uploading the clip to YouTube in an Internet café and using an alias could be seen as pointing to an awareness of unlawful conduct it did not, however, point to proof of the intention to cause disruption of the level anticipated by the statute. It transpired that the defendant was aware that the clip would probably be seen by the authorities and also that he expected that it would be “taken down”.

The offence prescribed in section 308 does involve communication as well as active behavior. It criminalises the breaking or damaging or the threatening to break or damage any dwelling with a specific intention – to intimidate or to annoy. Annoyance is a relatively low level reaction to the behavior. A specific behavior – the discharging of firearms that alarms or intends to alarm a person in a dwelling house – again with the intention to intimidate or annoy – is provided for in section 308(2).

The Summary Offences Act

The Summary Offences Act contains the offence of intimidation in section 21. Intimidation may be by words or behavior. The “communication” aspect of intimidation is provided in section 21(1) which states:

Every person commits an offence who, with intent to frighten or intimidate any other person, or knowing that his or her conduct is likely to cause that other person reasonably to be frightened or intimidated,—

  • threatens to injure that other person or any member of his or her family, or to damage any of that person’s property;

Thus, there must be a specific intention – to frighten or intimidate – together with a communicative element – the threat to injure the target or a member of his or her family, or damage property.

In some respects section 21 represents a conflation of elements of section 307 and 308 of the Crimes Act together with a lesser harm threatened – that of injury – than appears in section 306 of that Act.

However, there is an additional offence which cannot be overlooked in this discussion and it is that of offensive behavior or language provided in section 4 of the Summary Offences Act.

The language of the section is as follows:

  • Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—
  • in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or
  • in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person; or
  • in or within hearing of a public place,—

(i)  uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or

(ii) addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person.

  • Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $500 who, in or within hearing of any public place, uses any indecent or obscene words.
  • In determining for the purposes of a prosecution under this section whether any words were indecent or obscene, the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended.
  • It is a defence in a prosecution under subsection (2) if the defendant proves that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard.

In some respects the consequences of the speech suffered by the auditor (for the essence of the offence relies upon oral communication) resemble those provided in section 61 of the Human Rights Act.

Section 4 was considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Morse v Police.[12] Valerie Morse was convicted in the District Court of behaving in an offensive manner in a public place, after setting fire to the New Zealand flag at the Anzac Day dawn service in Wellington in 2007.

In the District Court, High Court and Court of Appeal offensive behavior was held to mean behaviour capable of wounding feelings or arousing real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person of the kind actually subjected to it in the circumstances. A tendency to disrupt public order was not required to constitute behaviour that was offensive. Notwithstanding the freedom of expression guaranteed by NZBORA, the behavior was held to be offensive within the context of the ANZAC observance.

The Supreme Court held that offensive behavior must be behaviour which gives rise to a disturbance of public order. Although agreed that disturbance of public order is a necessary element of offensive behaviour under s 4(1)(a), the Judges differed as to the meaning of “offensive” behaviour. The majority considered that offensive behaviour must be capable of wounding feelings or arousing real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage, objectively assessed, provided that it is to an extent which impacts on public order and is more than those subjected to it should have to tolerate. Furthermore it will be seen that a mixed subjective\objective test is present in that the anger, resentment, disgust or outrage must be measured objectively – how would a reasonable person in this situation respond.

It is important to note that in addition to the orality or behavioural quality of the communication – Anderson J referred to it as behavioural expression[13] –  it must take place in or within view of a public place. It falls within that part of the Summary Offences Act that is concerned with public order and conduct in public places. Finally, offensive behavior is behavior that does more than merely create offence.

Observations on Communications Offences

In some respects these various offences occupy points on a spectrum. Interestingly, the offence of offensive behavior has the greatest implications for freedom of expression or expressive behavior, in that the test incorporates a subjective one in the part of the observer. But it also carries the lightest penalty, and as a summary offence can be seen to be the least serious on the spectrum. The section could be applied in the case of oral or behavioural expression against individuals or groups based on colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as long as the tests in Morse are met.

At the other end of the spectrum is section 307 dealing with threats to kill or cause grievous bodily harm which carries with it a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment. This section is applicable to all persons irrespective of colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as are sections 307, 308, section 21 of the Summary Offences Act and section 22 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act which could all occupy intermediate points on the spectrum based on the elements of the offence and the consequences that may attend upon a conviction.

There are some common themes to sections 306, 307, 308 of the Crimes Act and section 21 of the Summary Offences Act.

First, there is the element of fear that may be caused by the behavior. Even although the issue of intimidation is not specifically an element of the offences under sections 306 and 307, there is a fear that the threat may be carried out.

Secondly there is a specific consequence prescribed – grievous bodily harm or damage to or destruction of property.

Thirdly there is the element of communication or communicative behavior that has the effect of “sending a message”.

These themes assist in the formulation of a speech-based offence that is a justifiable limitation on free speech, that recognizes that there should be some objectively measurable and identifiable harm that flows from the speech, but that does not stifle robust debate in a free and democratic society.

A Possible Solution

There is a change that could be made to the law which would address what appears to be something of a gulf between the type of harm contemplated by section 306 and lesser, yet just as significant harms.

I propose that the following language could cover the advocacy or intentional incitement of actual physical injury against individuals or groups. Injury is a lesser physical harm than grievous bodily harm and fills a gap between serious emotional distress present in the HDCA and the harm contemplated by section 306.

The language of the proposal is technology neutral. It could cover the use of words or communication either orally, in writing, electronically or otherwise. Although I dislike the use of the words “for the avoidance of doubt” in legislation for they imply a deficiency of clarity of language in the first place, there could be a definition of words or communication to include the use of electronic media.

The language of the proposal is as follows:

It is an offence to use words or communication that advocates or intends to incite actual physical injury against an individual or group of individuals based upon, in the case of a group, identifiable particular characteristics of that group

This proposal would achieve a number of objectives. It would capture speech or communications that cause or threaten to cause harm of a lesser nature than grievous bodily harm stated in section 306.

The proposal is based upon ascertaining an identifiable harm caused by the speech or communicative act. This enables the nature of the speech to be crystallised in an objective manner rather than the unclear, imprecise and potentially inconsistent use of the umbrella term “hate speech.”

The proposal would cover speech, words or communication across all media. It would establish a common threshold for words or communication below which an offence would be committed.

The proposal would cover any form of communicative act which was the term used by Anderson J in Morse and which the word “expression” used in section 14 of NZBORA encompasses.

The tension between freedom of expression and the limitations that may be imposed by law is acknowledged. It would probably need to be stated, although it should not be necessary, that in applying the provisions of the section the Court would have to have regard to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.

Other Legislative Initiatives

The Human Rights Act

There has been consideration of expanding other legislative avenues to address the problem of “dangerous” speech. The first avenue lies in the Human Rights Act which prohibits the incitement of disharmony on the basis of race, ethnicity, colour or national origins. One of the recent criticisms of the legislation is that it does not apply to incitement for reasons of religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.[14]

Before considering whether such changes need to be made – a different consideration to whether they should be made – it is important to understand how the Human Rights Act works in practice. The Act prohibits a number of discriminatory practices in relation to various activities and services.[15] It also prohibits indirect discrimination which is an effects based form of activity.[16] Victimisation or less favourable treatment based on making certain disclosures is prohibited.[17] Discrimination in advertising along with provisions dealing with sexual or racial harassment are the subject of provisions.[18]

The existing provisions relating to racial disharmony as a form of discrimination and racial harassment are contained in section 61 and 63 of the Act.[19]

There are two tests under section 61. One is an examination of the content of the communication. Is it threatening, abusive or insulting? If that has been established the next test is to consider whether it is:

  1. Likely to excite hostility against or
  2. Bring into contempt

Any group of persons either in or coming to New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins.

These provisions could well apply to “dangerous speech”. Is it necessary, therefore, to extend the existing categories in section 61 to include religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Religion

Clearly if one were to add religion, threatening, abusive or insulting language about adherents of the Islamic faith would fall within the first limb of the section 61(1) test. But is it necessary that religion be added? And should this be simply because a religious group was targeted?

The difficulty with including threatening, abusive or insulting language against groups based upon religion means that not only would Islamaphobic “hate speech” be caught, but so too would the anti-Christian, anti-West, anti “Crusader” rhetoric of radical Islamic jihadi groups be caught. Would the recent remarks by Winston Peters condemning the implementation of strict sharia law in Brunei that would allow the stoning of homosexuals and adulterers be considered speech that insults members of a religion?[20]

A further difficulty with religious-based speech is that often there are doctrinal differences that can lead to strong differences of opinion that are strongly voiced. Often the consequences for doctrinal heresy will be identified as having certain consequences in the afterlife. Doctrinal disputes, often expressed in strong terms, have been characteristics of religious discourse for centuries. Indeed the history of the development of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press was often in the context of religious debate and dissent.

It may well be that to add a category of religion or religious groups will have unintended consequences and have the effect of stifling or chilling debate about religious belief.

An example of the difficulty that may arise with restrictions on religious speech may be demonstrated by the statement “God is dead.” This relatively innocuous statement may be insulting or abusive to members of theist groups who would find a fundamental aspect of their belief system challenged. For some groups such a statement may be an invitation to violence against the speaker. Yet the same statement could be insulting or abusive to atheists as well simply for the reason that for God to be dead presupposes the existence of God which challenges a fundamental aspect of atheist belief.

This example illustrates the danger of placing religious discourse into the unlawful categories of discrimination.

If it were to be determined that religious groups would be added to those covered by section 61, stronger wording relating to the consequences of speech should be applicable to such groups. Instead of merely “exciting hostility against” or “bring into contempt” based upon religious differences perhaps the wording should be “advocating and encouraging physical violence against..” .

This would have the effect of being a much stronger test than exists at present under section 61 and recognizes the importance of religious speech and doctrinal dispute.

Gender, Disability or Sexual Orientation

The Human Rights Act already has provisions relating to services-based discrimination on these additional grounds. The question is whether or not there is any demonstrated need to extend the categories protected under section 61 to these groups.

Under the current section 61 test, any threatening, abusive or insulting language directed towards or based upon gender, disability or sexual orientation could qualify as “hate speech” if the speech was likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt a group of persons. The difficulty lies not so much with threatening language, which is generally clear and easy to determine, but with language which may be abusive or insulting.

Given the sensitivities that many have and the ease with which many are “offended” it could well be that a softer and less robust approach may be taken to what constitutes abusive or insulting language.

For this reason the test surrounding the effect of such speech needs to be abundantly clear. If the categories protected by section 61 are to be extended there must be a clear causative nexus between the speech and the exciting of hostility or the bringing into contempt. Alternatively the test could be strengthened as suggested above to replace the test of exciting hostility or bringing into contempt with “advocating and encouraging physical violence against..”

It should be observed that section 61 covers groups that fall within the protected categories. Individuals within those groups have remedies available to them under the provisions of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015

The first observation that must be made is that the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 (HDCA) is an example of Internet Exceptionalism in that it deals only with speech communicated via electronic means. It does not cover speech that may take place in a physical public place, by a paper pamphlet or other form of non-electronic communication.

The justification for such exceptionalism was considered by the Law Commission in the Ministerial Briefing Paper.[21] It was premised upon the fact that digital information is pervasive, its communication is not time limited and can take place at any time – thus extending the reach of the cyber-bully – and it is often shared among groups with consequent impact upon relationships. These are some of the properties of digital communications systems to which I have made reference elsewhere.[22]

A second important feature of the HDCA is that the remedies set out in the legislation are not available to groups. They are available only to individuals. Individuals are defined as “natural persons” and applications for civil remedies can only be made by an “affected individual” who alleges that he or she has suffered or will suffer harm as a result of a digital communication.[23] Under section 22 – the offence section – the victim of an offence is the individual who is the target of a posted digital communication.[24]

The HDCA provides remedies for harmful digital communications. A harmful digital communication is one which

  1. Is a digital communication communicated electronically and includes any text message, writing, photograph, picture, recording, or other matter[25]
  2. Causes harm – that is serious emotional distress

In addition there are ten communications principles[26]. Section 6(2) of the Act requires the Court to take these principles into account in performing functions or exercising powers under the Act.

For the purposes of a discussion about “dangerous speech” principles 2, 3, 8 and 10 are relevant. Principle 10 extends the categories present in section 61 of the Human Rights Act to include those discussed above.

The reason for the difference is that the consequences of a harmful digital communication are more of an individual and personal nature. Harm or serious emotional distress must be caused. This may warrant an application for an order pursuant to section 19 of the Act – what may be described as a civil enforcement order. A precondition to an application for any of the orders pursuant to section 19 is that the matter must be considered by the Approved Agency – presently Netsafe.[27] If Netsafe is unable to resolve the matter, then it is open to the affected individual to apply to the District Court.

The orders that are available are not punitive but remedial in nature. They include an order that the communication be taken down or access to it be disabled; that there be an opportunity for a reply or for an apology; that there be a form of restraining order so that the defendant is prohibited from re-posting the material or encouraging others to do so.

In addition orders may be made against online content hosts requiring them to take material down along with the disclosure of the details and particulars of a subscriber who may have posted a harmful digital communication. Internet Service Providers (described in the legislation as IPAPs) may be required to provide details of an anonymous subscriber to the Court.

It should be noted that the element of intending harm need not be present on the part of the person posting the electronic communication. In such a situation the material is measured against the communications principles along with evidence that the communication has caused serious emotional distress.

Section 22 – Causing harm by posting a digital communication

The issue of intentional causation of harm is covered by section 22 of the Act. A mixed subjective-objective test that is required for an assessment of content. The elements necessary for an offence under section 22 HDCA are as follows:

A person must post a digital communication with a specific intention – that it cause harm to a victim;

It must be proven that the posting of the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim;

Finally, the communication must cause harm to the victim.

Harm is defined as serious emotional distress. In addition the Court may take a number of factors into account in determining whether a post may cause harm

  1. the extremity of the language used:
  2. the age and characteristics of the victim:
  3. whether the digital communication was anonymous:
  4. whether the digital communication was repeated:
  5. the extent of circulation of the digital communication:
  6. whether the digital communication is true or false:
  7. the context in which the digital communication appeared.

The requirement that harm be intended as well as caused has been the subject of some criticism. If there has been an intention to cause harm, is it necessary that there be proof that harm was caused? Similarly, surely it is enough that harm was caused even if it were not intended?

As to the first proposition it must be remembered that section 22 criminalises a form of expression. The Law Commission was particularly concerned that the bar should be set high, given the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provisions in section 14 regarding freedom of expression. If expression is to be criminalized the consequences of that expression must warrant the involvement of the criminal law and must be accompanied by the requisite mens rea or intention.

As to the second proposition, the unintended causation of harm is covered by the civil enforcement provisions of the legislation. To eliminate the element of intention would make the offence one of strict liability – an outcome reserved primarily for regulatory or public interest types of offence.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act and “Dangerous Speech”

Could the HDCA in its current form be deployed to deal with “dangerous speech”. The first thing to be remembered is that the remedies in the legislation are available to individuals. Thus if there were a post directed towards members of a group, an individual member of that group could consider proceedings.

Would that person be “a victim” within the meaning of section 22? It is important to note that the indefinite article is used rather than the definite one. Conceivably if a post were made about members of a group the collective would be the target of the communication and thus every individual member of that collective could make a complaint and claim to be a target of the communication under section 22(4).

To substantiate the complaint it would be necessary to prove that the communication caused serious emotional distress[28] which may arise from a cumulation of a number of factors.[29] Whether the communication fulfilled the subjective\objective test in section 22(1)(b) would, it is suggested, be clear if the communication amounted to “hate speech”, taking into account the communications principles, along with the factors that should be taken into account in section 22(2)((a) – (g). The issue of intention to cause harm could be discerned either directly or by inference from the nature of the language used in the communication.

In addition it is suggested that the civil remedies would also be available to a member of a group to whom “dangerous speech” was directed. Even although a group may be targeted, an individual member of the group would qualify as an affected individual if serious emotional distress were suffered. A consideration of the communications principles and whether or not the communication was in breach of those principles would be a relatively straightforward matter of interpretation.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act in Action

Although the principal target of the legislation was directed towards cyber-bullying by young people, most of the prosecutions under the Act have been within the context of relationship failures or breakdowns and often have involved the transmission of intimate images or videos – a form of what the English refer to as “revenge porn”. There have been a relatively large number of prosecutions under section 22 – something that was not anticipated by the Law Commission in its Briefing Paper.[30]

Information about the civil enforcement process is difficult to obtain. Although the Act is clear that decisions, including reasons, in proceedings must be published.[31] There are no decisions available on any website to my knowledge.

From my experience there are two issues that arise regarding the civil enforcement process. The first is the way the cases come before the Court. When the legislation was enacted the then Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, considered that the Law Commission recommendation that there be a Communications Tribunal to deal with civil enforcement applications was not necessary and that the jurisdiction under the legislation would form part of the normal civil work of the District Court.

Because of pressures on the District Court, civil work does not receive the highest priority and Harmful Digital Communications applications take their place as part of the ordinary business of the Court. This means that the purpose of the Act in providing a quick and efficient means of redress for victimsis not being fulfilled. [32]  One case involving communications via Facebook in January of 2017 has been the subject of several part-heard hearings and has yet to be concluded. Even if the Harmful Digital Communications Act is not to be deployed to deal with “dangerous speech”, it is suggested that consideration be given to the establishment of a Communications Tribunal as suggested by the Law Communication so that hearings of applications can be fast-tracked.

The second issue surrounding the civil enforcement regime involves that of jurisdiction over off-shore online content hosts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. Although Facebook and Google have been cited as parties and have been served in New Zealand, they do not acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Court but nevertheless indicate a willingness to co-operate with requests made by the Court without submitting to the jurisdiction of the Court.

In my view the provisions of Subpart 3 of Part 6 of the District Court Rules would be applicable. These provisions allow service outside New Zealand as a means of establishing the jurisdiction of the New Zealand Courts. The provisions of Rule 6.23 relating to service without leave are not applicable and, as the law stands, the leave of the Court would have to be sought to serve an offshore online content host. This is a complex process that requires a number of matters to be addressed about a case before leave may be granted. Once leave has been granted there may be a protest to the jurisdiction by the online content host before the issue of jurisdiction could be established.

One possible change to the law might be an amendment to Rule 6.23 allowing service of proceedings under the HDCA without the leave of the Court. There would still be the possibility that there would be a protest to the jurisdiction but if that could be answered it would mean that the Courts would be able to properly make orders against offshore online content hosts.

Are Legislative Changes Necessary?

It will be clear by now that the law relating to “dangerous speech” in New Zealand does not require major widespread change or reform. What changes may be needed are relatively minor and maintain the important balance contained in the existing law between protecting citizens or groups from speech that is truly harmful and ensuring that the democratic right to freedom of expression is preserved.

The Importance of Freedom of Expression

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA) provides at section 14

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

This right is not absolute. It is subject to section 5 which provides “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

Section 4 reinforces the concept of Parliamentary supremacy. If a specific piece of legislation conflicts or is inconsistent with NZBORA, the specific piece of legislation prevails. Thus, specific pieces of legislation which impose restrictions or limitations upon freedom of expression – such as the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 – prevail although if an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in NZBORA, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning.[33]

This then provides a test for considering limitations or restrictions on the rights under NZBORA. Limitations must be reasonable and must be demonstrably justified within the context of a free and democratic society.

Thus, when we consider legislation that may impinge upon or limit the freedom of expression the limitation must be

  1. Reasonable
  2. Demonstrably justified
  3. Yet recognizing that we live in a free and democratic society.

The justified limitations test contains within it a very real tension. On the one hand there is a limitation on a freedom. On the other there is a recognition of freedom in that we live in a free and democratic society. I would suggest that although NZBORA does not use this language, the emphasis upon a free and democratic society, and the requirement of reasonableness and demonstrable justification imports an element of necessity. Is the limitation of the freedom necessary?

The problem with freedom of expression is that it is elusive. What sort of limitations on the freedom of expression may be justified?

Freedom of Expression in Practice

The reality with freedom of expression is that it is most tested when we hear things with which we disagree. It is not limited to the comfortable space of agreeable ideas.

Salman Rushdie said that without the freedom to offend the freedom of expression is nothing. Many critics of current debates seem to conflate the freedom to express those ideas with the validity of those ideas, and their judgement on the latter means that they deny the freedom to express them.

The case of Redmond-Bate v DPP[34]  [1999] EWHC Admin 733 was about two women who were arrested for preaching on the steps of a church. Sedley LJ made the following comments:[35]

“I am unable to see any lawful basis for the arrest or therefore the conviction. PC Tennant had done precisely the right thing with the three youths and sent them on their way. There was no suggestion of highway obstruction. Nobody had to stop and listen. If they did so, they were as free to express the view that the preachers should be locked up or silenced as the appellant and her companions were to preach. Mr. Kealy for the prosecutor submitted that if there are two alternative sources of trouble, a constable can properly take steps against either. This is right, but only if both are threatening violence or behaving in a manner that might provoke violence. Mr. Kealy was prepared to accept that blame could not attach for a breach of the peace to a speaker so long as what she said was inoffensive. This will not do. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. What Speakers’ Corner (where the law applies as fully as anywhere else) demonstrates is the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of state control of unofficial ideas. A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed power. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy.”

One way of shutting down debate and the freedom of expression is to deny a venue, as we have seen in the unwise decision of Massey University Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas to deny Mr Don Brash a chance to speak on campus. The Auckland City did the same with the recent visit by speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley (who wrote the judgement in Redmond-Bate v DPP above) writing privately, commented on platform denial in this way:

” A great deal of potentially offensive speech takes place in controlled or controllable forums – schools, universities, newspapers, broadcast media – which are able to make and enforce their own rules. For these reasons it may be legitimate to criticise a periodical such as Charlie Hebdo for giving unjustified offence – for incivility, in other words – without for a moment wanting to see it or any similarly pungent periodical penalised or banned. Correspondingly, the “no platform” policies adopted by many tertiary institutions and supported in general by the National Union of Students are intended to protect minorities in the student body from insult or isolation. But the price of this, the stifling of unpopular or abrasive voices, is a high one, and it is arguable that it is healthier for these voices to be heard and challenged. Challenge of course brings its own problems: is it legitimate to shout a speaker down? But these are exactly the margins of civility which institutions need to think about and manage. They are not a justification for taking sides by denying unpopular or abrasive speakers a platform.”[36]

So the upshot of all this is that we should be careful in overreacting in efforts to control, monitor, stifle or censor speech with which we disagree but which may not cross the high threshold of “dangerous speech”. And certainly be careful in trying to hobble the Internet platforms and the ISPs. Because of the global distributed nature of the Internet it would be wrong for anyone to impose their local values upon a world wide communications network. The only justifiable solution would be one that involved international consensus and a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression.

Conclusion

The function of government is to protect its citizens from harm and to hold those who cause harm accountable. By the same token a free exchange of ideas is essential in a healthy and diverse democracy. In such a way diversity of opinion is as essential as the diversity of those who make up the community.

I have posited a solution that recognizes and upholds freedom of expression and yet recognizes that there is a threshold below which untrammeled freedom of expression can cause harm. It is when expression falls below that threshold that the interference of the law is justified,

I have based my proposal upon a term based upon an identifiable and objective consequence – speech which is dangerous – rather than the term “hate speech”. Indeed there are some who suggest that mature democracies should move beyond “hate speech” laws.[37] Ash suggests that it is impossible to reach a conclusive verdict upon the efficacy of “hate speech” laws and suggests that there is scant evidence that mature democracies with extensive hate speech laws manifest any less racism, sexism or other kinds of prejudice than those with few or no such laws.[38] Indeed, it has been suggested that the application of “hate speech” laws has been unpredictable and disproportionate. A further problem with “hate speech” is that they tend to encourage people to take offence rather than learn to live with the fact that there is a diversity of opinions, or ignore it or deal with it by speaking back – preferably with reasoned argument rather than veto statements.

It is for this reason that I have approached the problem from the perspective of objective, identifiable harm rather than wrestling with the very fluid concept of “hate speech.” For that I may be criticized for ducking the issue. The legal solution proposed is a suggested way of confronting the issue rather than ducking it. It preserves freedom of expression as an essential element of a healthy and functioning democracy yet recognizes that there are occasions when individuals and members of groups may be subjected to physical danger arising from forms of expression.

What is essential is that the debate should be conducted in a measured, objective and unemotive manner. Any interference with freedom of expression must be approached with a considerable degree of care. An approach based upon an objectively identifiable danger rather than an emotive concept such as “hate” provides a solution.

[1] Presumably on the grounds that they depict, promote or encourage crime or terrorism or that the publication is injurious to the public good. See the definition of objectionable in the Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993

[2] Timothy Garton Ash Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic Books, London 2016) p. 211

[3] US v Schwimmer 279 US 644 (1929)

[4] Daphne Patai Heterophobia: sexual harassment and the future of feminism (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham 1998).

[5] See Irving v Penguin Books Ltd [2000] EWHC  QB 115.

[6] Jeremy Waldron The Harm in Hate Speech (Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2012 p. 120.

[7] Beauharnais v Illinois 343 US 250 (1952).

[8] Section 307A reads as follows:

307A Threats of harm to people or property

(1)           Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years if, without lawful justification or reasonable excuse, and intending to achieve the effect stated in subsection (2), he or she—

(a)           threatens to do an act likely to have 1 or more of the results described in subsection (3); or

(b)           communicates information—

(i)            that purports to be about an act likely to have 1 or more of the results described in subsection (3); and

(ii)           that he or she believes to be false.

(2)           The effect is causing a significant disruption of 1 or more of the following things:

(a)           the activities of the civilian population of New Zealand:

(b)           something that is or forms part of an infrastructure facility in New Zealand:

(c)            civil administration in New Zealand (whether administration undertaken by the Government of New Zealand or by institutions such as local authorities, District Health Boards, or boards of trustees of schools):

(d)           commercial activity in New Zealand (whether commercial activity in general or commercial activity of a particular kind).

(3)           The results are—

(a)           creating a risk to the health of 1 or more people:

(b)           causing major property damage:

(c)            causing major economic loss to 1 or more persons:

(d)           causing major damage to the national economy of New Zealand.

(4)           To avoid doubt, the fact that a person engages in any protest, advocacy, or dissent, or engages in any strike, lockout, or other industrial action, is not, by itself, a sufficient basis for inferring that a person has committed an offence against subsection (1).

[9] [2013] DCR 482. For a full discussion of this case see David Harvey Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and rulemaking in the Internet Age (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2017) at p. 268 and following.

[10] Police v Joseph above at [2].

[11] Ibid at [7].

[12] [2011] NZSC 45.

[13] Ibid at para [123].

[14] See Human Rights Commission chief legal advisor Janet Bidois quoted in Michelle Duff “Hate crime law review fast-tracked following Christchurch mosque shootings” Stuff 30 March 2019. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111661809/hate-crime-law-review-fasttracked-following-christchurch-mosque-shooting

[15] Human Rights Act 1993 sections 21 – 63.

[16] Ibid section 65.

[17] Ibid section 66

[18] Ibid sections 67 and 69.

[19] The provisions of section 61(1) state:

(1)           It shall be unlawful for any person—

(a)           to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(b)           to use in any public place as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or

(c)            to use in any place words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting if the person using the words knew or ought to have known that the words were reasonably likely to be published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical or broadcast by means of radio or television,—

being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.

It should be noted that Internet based publication is encompassed by the use of the words “or other electronic communication”.

[20] Derek Cheng “Winston Peters criticizes Brunei for imposing strict Sharia law” NZ Herald 31 March 2019 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12217917

[21] New Zealand Law Commission Ministerial Briefing Paper Harmful Digital Communications:The adequacy of the current sanctions and remedies. (New Zealand Law Commission, Wellington, August 2012) https://www.lawcom.govt.nz/sites/default/files/projectAvailableFormats/NZLC%20MB3.pdf (last accessed 26 April 2019)

[22] See David Harvey Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and Rulemaking in the Internet (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2017) especially at Chapter 2

[23] Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 11.

[24] Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 22(4).

[25] It may also include a consensual or non-consensual intimate video recording

[26] Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 6. These principles are as follows:

Principle 1  A digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.

Principle 2  A digital communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.

Principle 3  A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.

Principle 4 A digital communication should not be indecent or obscene.

Principle 5  A digital communication should not be used to harass an individual.

Principle 6  A digital communication should not make a false allegation.

Principle 7  A digital communication should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence.

Principle 8  A digital communication should not incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual.

Principle 9  A digital communication should not incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide.

Principle 10 A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

[27] http://netsafe.org.nz

[28] Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 22(1)(c)

[29] See Police v B [2017] NZHC 526.

[30] For some of the statistics on prosecutions under the Act see Nikki MacDonald “Revenge Porn: Is the Harmful Digital Communications Act Working?” 9 March 2019 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/110768981/revenge-porn-is-the-harmful-digital-communications-act-working

[31] Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 16(4)

[32] Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 3(b)

[33] See New Zealand Bill of Rights Act section 6. Note also that the Harmful Digital Communications Act provides at section 6 that in performing its functions or exercising powers under the Act the Approved Agency and the Courts must act consistently with the rights and freedoms provided in NZBORA.

[34] [1999] EWHC Admin 733.

[35] Ibid at  para [20].

[36] Stephen Sedley Law and the Whirligig of Time (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2018) p. 176-177. The emphasis is mine.

[37] For example see Timothy Garton Ash Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic, London 2016) especially at 219 and following.

[38] Ibid.

RIP Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien has died at the age of 95. This is sad news but not entirely unexpected. He himself in the preface to “Beren and Luthien” questioned at the age of 93 whether it would be the last volume of his father’s works that he edited, and he certainly drew the line in the preface to “The Fall of Gondolin”. It was fitting in a way that the last work that he edited was his father’s first tale of his mythology, written whilst he was invalided out of the trenches in World War One.

Christopher John Reuel Tolkien was the third son of the author J. R. R. Tolkien and was born in Leeds on 21 November 1924. Christopher had long been part of the critical audience for his father’s fiction, first as a child listening to tales of Bilbo Baggins(later published as “The Hobbit”), and then as a teenager and young adult offering much feedback on The Lord of the Rings during its 15-year gestation.

He had the task of interpreting his father’s sometimes self-contradictory maps of Middle-earth in order to produce the versions used in the books, and he re-drew the main map in the late 1970s to clarify the lettering and correct some errors and omissions. J. R. R. Tolkien invited Christopher to join the Inklings when he was twenty-one years old, making him the youngest member of the informal literary discussion society .

Following the death of J.R.R Tolkien in 1973, Christopher became his literary executor and was responsible for editing and seeing to publication “The Silmarillion”. This was followed by “Unfinished Tales” and the massive 12 volume collection of his father’s Middle-earth writings entitled “The History of Middle-earth.” In addition he edited as collections tales under the title “The Children of Hurin”, “Beren and Luthien” and in 2018 “The Fall of Gondolin”

In addition Christopher edited and saw to publication many of his father’s more academically inclined works such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo”, “The Monsters and the Critics and othe essays”, “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”, “The Fall of Arthur” and “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary”.

Christopher’s son Simon described the enormity of the task after his grandfather died with so much material still unpublished.

Simon said: “He had produced this huge output that covered everything from the history of the gods to the history of the people he called the Silmarils – that was his great work but it had never seen the light of day despite his best efforts to get it published.”

Christopher was critical of the comercialisation of his father’s work and was critical of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

In a 2012 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, he criticised the adaptations, saying: “They gutted the book, making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.”

He also said: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of our time,” and that “the commercialisation has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing”.

Tolkien served as the director of the Tolkien Estate until 2017, when it was believed he stepped down due to Amazon Studios acquiring the Lord of the Rings TV rights.

His opposition to the movie adaptations is understandable, given that he wished to protect the integrity of the original creation. But in many respects, J R R Tolkien and latterly Christopher themselves were involved in an adaptative process. Given that Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England it is in the nature of myth that the tales are told and retold, varied, edited, truncated and adapted. This is the nature of story-telling. It is doubtful that the Greek versions of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are as they were originally narrated by the poet or poets we name as Homer, and one has only to look at the various translations that are available to understand the differences that can occur in telling the same story.

Furthermore it must be remembered that the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” was an adaptation in a different medium from a book in the same way that the BBC radio adaptation by Brian Sibley starring Michael Hordern as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Frodo is just that. Some material was left out. Like the movie, for example, there was no Tom Bombadil nor Fog on Barrowdowns. I must say that I thought a liberty was taken substituting Arwen for Glorfindel on the Flight to the Ford in the movie. But the essential elements of the story, the basic themes remained the same. There are moments in Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings where he gets it just right. The passing of the Elves to the West, Rivendell and the Bridge at Khazad Dum are well done.

It is to be hoped that the Amazon adaptations will maintain the integrity of the parent work and as I have suggested elsewhere, hopefully we will see some of the tales of the First and Second Ages. Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin would make for amazing viewing. Move over Game of Thrones.

Tolkien scholar Dr Dimitra Fimi reflected on Christopher’s academic contribution:

Tolkien studies would never be what it is today without Christopher Tolkien’s contribution. From editing The Silmarillion to the mammoth task of giving us the History of Middle-earth series, he revealed his father’s grand vision of a rich and complex mythology. He gave us a window into Tolkien’s creative process, and he provided scholarly commentary that enriched our understanding of Middle-earth. He was Middle-earth’s cartographer and first scholar.

Christopher Tolkien passed to the West on 16 January 2020.