Case of Auckland couple allegedly travelling to Wānaka during lockdown raises justice system disparity issues - defence lawyer

The case of an Auckland couple who allegedly breached Tāmaki Makaurau's COVID-19 lockdown and travelled to Wānaka raises issues of disparity in the justice system, a defence lawyer says.

William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley left Auckland's alert level 4 restrictions to travel to a family holiday home in Wānaka - but police have yet to file any charges. 

The couple spoke out on Tuesday evening and apologised to New Zealand for being selfish.

They were being represented by Rachael Reed QC and on Monday night, the couple were granted interim name suppression for 24 hours in a last-ditch effort to protect their identity - but that has since expired.  The couple have not yet been charged by police but face up to six months in prison or a $4000 fine if found guilty of breaching the lockdown rules. 

"It's very rare to have situations where people are getting interim name suppression before charge, I haven't come across it myself," said Kingi Snelgar, a defence lawyer. 

He told Newshub many New Zealanders don't have the luxury of being able to afford a QC.

William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley.
William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley. Photo credit: Supplied

"It does seem like if you have money [and] if you can afford a powerful lawyer, that you might be able to have better outcomes than those in New Zealand who don't have those financial means.

"I think this is a really interesting example of disparity and power - I think about the Māori wahine who was incarcerated for 14 days for escaping a MIQ facility and compare that to the situation we have… we have a couple who are able to afford a QC and go to these lengths quite early on in the process." 

The story of the couple's travels sparked outrage on social media, with many naming and shaming them before name suppression lapsed. Snelgar said name suppression is difficult in the age of social media.

"It's a very difficult world we live in now with social media - accessing this type of information is quite easy."

Wānaka. Photo credit: Getty Images

The couple said in their statement they'd received death threats and had genuine fear for their safety. 

Snelgar said that action wasn't surprising.

"I'm not surprised that the QC went to these lengths to do this, given that on social media, information can travel so quickly."

Thirty-five-year-old Willis is an equestrian and horse breeder and his partner Rawnsley is a lawyer. The law company Rawnsley works for has taken her online profile down.

Police said the pair used an essential worker exemption to get through Auckland's border. 

Once through, they drove to Hamilton airport and then boarded a commercial flight to Queenstown via Wellington. 

They rented a car on arrival and then drove to the holiday home in Wānaka. 

Asked about the case at Tuesday's COVID-19 press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said everyone needed to play their part.

"The rules are not there to be gamed," she told reporters.

In their statement on Tuesday evening, the couple admitted their actions were completely irresponsible and inexcusable. They said they were deeply sorry and apologised to New Zealand.

If the couple is charged, it'll be for a breach of the COVID-19 Health Response Order. 

"I haven't been asked to give any advice to [the] police. The matter for prosecution is in their hands, it's very clear in the order what the expectations are," Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Tuesday. 

The couple said they both received negative COVID-19 tests before their trip down South.

Willis' mother, District Court judge Mary-Beth Sharp - who had earlier been granted name suppression with the pair - also released a statement condemning their actions

A spokesperson for the Office of the Chief District Court Judge said it was aware of the matter.

"The Chief District Court Judge was advised by Judge Mary-Beth Sharp of the Auckland District Court that her son is one of the persons who is the subject of possible charges and that, she was not involved in any way in relation to the actions of her son and his partner.

"To avoid any potential conflict of interest, the Chief District Court Judge has put in place arrangements for a Judge of the Wellington District Court to deal with any proceedings in relation to this matter."