Lawyers condemn Paula Bennett's 'fewer human rights' comments

Paula Bennett's comments that some New Zealanders have "fewer human rights" than others has been condemned by the NZ Bar Association.

The Deputy Prime Minister made the comments on Sunday while introducing National's new plans to fight gangs and the methamphetamine trade.

The Bar Association, which represents barristers, said it is "concerned" such a high-ranking Government minister doesn't appear to understand "the importance of upholding" the NZ Bill of Rights Act.

"There can be no doubt that the manufacture and consumption of 'P' and other hard drugs is a huge problem in New Zealand, and one which needs to be addressed urgently," President Clive Elliott, QC said in a statement.

"However, whatever the merits of the Government's announced proposal to empower police to search gang members' cars and homes for firearms, Ms Bennett's statement is inconsistent with the rule of law, which is the basis of our legal system and the foundation stone of a just and democratic society."

Mr Elliott said under the law, everyone is treated equally.

"No matter how unpopular you are or whatever wrong you may have committed, you are entitled to be treated in the same way as anybody else, according to law. That includes the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial judiciary.

"It is essential that these principles are applied universally in order to protect all members of society against injustice and abuse.

"Even though Ms Bennett has today been corrected by the Prime Minister, the New Zealand Bar Association is concerned that the importance of upholding these principles appears not to have been understood by a senior Government minister."

Prime Minister Bill English told The AM Show on Monday morning Ms Bennett's comments were "not an accurate reflection" of the policy.

"Police want the ability to get in there and search without a warrant. A select committee of Parliament proposed that a number of months ago with agreement from a number of the parties, so it's not a new idea," he said.

"But the way it was described by Ms Bennett is not an accurate reflection of what it is - which is essentially being able to make a search under quite particular circumstances without a warrant."

Wellington barrister Felix Geiringer said police already have the power to search "any place or vehicle without a warrant if they have reasonable grounds to suspect there are illegal firearms".

He said the Bill of Rights Act "does not guarantee freedom from being searched, just from being unreasonably searched".

"These are all powers that already exist. The suggestion that the police are somehow hamstrung in gang drugs & guns cases is fiction," he tweeted.

Jarrod Gilbert, criminologist and author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, said Ms Bennett should resign over the comments.

"Bennett said on Twitter that 'scumbag gangs don't deserve protection'," he wrote in an op-ed piece for NZME.

"But the majority of drug dealers aren't gang members, so why do those scumbags have greater rights than those in a gang?"

He during his research for Patched, police mistook him for a gang member - and innocent people could easily get caught up in police actions against suspects.

"What if your son is in a gang and he's staying with you, can your house then be searched without a warrant? How far does the discretion extend? How many times can a gang member's house be searched without finding anything before such searches are stopped?"

Backing from lobby group

Ms Bennett has found favour however with anti-crime lobby group the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

"Paula Bennett said what most decent people believe: gang members are, because of their conduct and values, lesser beings than the rest of us, and ought not to be entitled to the same legal protections as law abiding citizens," said spokesman David Garrett.

"If gang members don't like relentless harassment, the answer is easy: take off the stinking patch which proclaims the wearer as an outlaw, and renounce the organisation associated with that patch."

Mr Garrett, a former MP, has himself been convicted of assault. In 2010 he admitted he'd once stolen the identity of a dead child to obtain a passport, which forced him out of Parliament.