Justice system classist, not racist - expert

Chris Gallivan
Chris Gallivan

One of New Zealand's top legal minds says New Zealand's legal system isn't so much racist as it is classist.

It just so happens many more Māori and Pacific Islanders fall into lower social and economic classes than Pākehā, says Massey University law professor Chris Gallivan.

"Every justice system in the world suffers from subconscious bias. Racism has a wilful aspect to it… it's not wilfully racist, but in the way it's structured," he told Paul Henry on Monday morning.

"If you've got more money, every aspect of society, if you've got more money you get a better service. The justice system's not immune to that."

His comments follow the release of an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report last week, which found police officers were less likely to use their discretion and give Māori a warning, rather than press charges, when compared with non- Māori.

Also last week, the teenage son of a rich-lister avoided jail after he beat a police officer so badly she was hospitalised and spent two months off work. Instead, he was sentenced to 300 hours' community service and has to pay a $5000 fine.

"You pay more money, you get a better service," is Dr Gallivan's summary of the sentence.

While the poor have access to legal aid, Dr Gallivan says it's been "absolutely run down" so the playing field is far from fair.

And with people from poor communities less likely to get decent legal representation, they're also more likely to get convictions and jail time, which the Police Association said last week makes it harder to apply discretion in pressing charges and sentencing.

"You go to any district court in the country and you'll see that it's actually a factory," says Dr Gallivan.

"They're being processed through. When you have that, you have some perversities that come up in the system."

But that doesn't make it racist, says Dr Gallivan, and calling it so is "incredibly unhelpful".

"It polarises conversation - in fact it shuts down conversation, and quite rightly so - it's such an emotive term."