Equal­ity be­fore the law a myth


Sup­pos­edly, all of us - kings, com­mon­ers, and busi­ness ty­coons alike – can ex­pect to re­ceive equal treat­ment be­fore the law.

In prin­ci­ple, it is hard to dis­agree with the no­tion that the jus­tice sys­tem should not be in­flu­enced by the wealth, sta­tus, or race of the ac­cused.

In prac­tice though, the process pans out some­what dif­fer­ently. A rig­or­ous le­gal de­fence is a com­mod­ity that many peo­ple sim­ply can­not af­ford, and the way that mercy is ex­tended to the priv­i­leged can have more in com­mon with kitten videos than with text­book con­cepts of equal­ity.

Last week for in­stance, the pun­ish­ment handed down to young rich-list scion Niko­las James Posa Del­e­gat in­spired a good deal of pub­lic crit­i­cism, tem­pered with a cer­tain amount of res­ig­na­tion.

The very rich, as the nov­el­ist Scott Fitzger­ald once wearily said, are dif­fer­ent.

On the night in ques­tion, Del­e­gat was found to have bro­ken a bar win­dow, kneed a se­cu­rity guard in the face, re­sisted ar­rest from a male po­lice of­fi­cer and di­rected a re­peated as­sault at the head of a po­lice­woman that knocked her un­con­scious.

Some 18 months later and af­ter an ex­tended pe­riod off work, she is still suf­fer­ing from headaches, and – the court was told – fur­ther brain trauma could have ‘ se­ri­ous con­se­quences’ for her.

Ul­ti­mately, the court sen­tenced Del­e­gat to 300 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice and im­posed a $5000 fine in repa­ra­tion.

Thank­fully, the pre­sid­ing judge re­sisted pleas for a dis­charge with­out con­vic­tion, which the de­fence had put for­ward partly on the grounds that if con­victed, Del­e­gat ’’would have dif­fi­cul­ties in not be­ing able to race yachts in and around the Amer­i­can coast­line’’.

How­ever, the court com­pas­sion­ately noted that Del­e­gat had prob­lems with al­co­hol, had men­tal health is­sues with de­pres­sion, and - be­ing 18 at the time of the in­ci­dent - was young enough that his men­tal lobes might not yet have been fully de­vel­oped.

Alas, the for­ma­tive state of the men­tal lobes of 19-year-old Kawhia res­i­dent Jackie Maikuku didn’t seem to have overly con­cerned the court back in 2013.

Maikuku got nine months jail for as­sault­ing po­lice of­fi­cer Perry Grif­fin and giv­ing him cuts and bruises.

Nor was video ev­i­dence held rel­e­vant that ap­peared to show Maikuku back­ing away from Grif­fin be­fore be­ing pep­per sprayed and tasered, un­til the as­sault in ques­tion oc­curred.

Del­e­gat avoided a jail sen­tence en­tirely. Greg O’Con­nor, the Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent, was unim­pressed: ‘‘Had we been talk­ing about a young Poly­ne­sian man from south Dunedin then I’m sure we would have been talk­ing about whether it was 12 months or six months, or maybe even longer.’’

Each case is dif­fer­ent. Yet the le­niency ex­tended to Del­e­gat could hardly be more out of step with the times.

Re­port­edly, as­saults on Po­lice are in­creas­ing in fre­quency and sever­ity.

Six of the eight le­gal aid of­fices that pro­vide a form of le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion to the poor are be­ing closed, amid fund­ing cuts and a de­cline in the num­ber of lawyers will­ing to do such work.

In sum, the ten­der treat­ment of Del­e­gat could be just the tip of the ice­berg. In­come in­equal­ity - and in­equal­ity be­fore the law - ap­pear to be go­ing hand in hand.

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