How New Zealand's suppression laws could be tweaked after alleged lockdown breachers' names widely shared online

New Zealand's suppression laws could be tweaked after the names of the Auckland pair who fled to Wānaka were shared widely online, a law professor says.

William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley's apology on Tuesday confirmed what many already knew, despite their initial name suppression.

"We, in a sense, feel it's a crime against the public of New Zealand, against the team of 5 million, and I think it's that, and pretty much that alone, that has spurred on people's efforts to find out who they are," says Massey University law professor Chris Gallavin.

Simply typing "Wanaka" into Google or Facebook gave the couple's identities away.

"We're all challenged in how we view the world and how we interact with each other. And name suppression isn't any different from that. 

"But the principle is a very important one that goes to the absolute core of our criminal justice system," says Gallavin.

He says New Zealand needs a system of effective name suppression for our criminal justice system to work effectively. While this case isn't the death knell for suppression, he cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

"Clearly, there needs to be some tweaking of the rules in name suppression in order for it to be more effective in cases of this type. But we can't say, I don't believe, that name suppression is somehow a broken system and not fit for purpose."

As with the case of Google revealing the name of Grace Millane's killer in 2018, sometimes suppression can't keep up the public's desire for knowledge.

William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley.
William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley. Photo credit: Getty Images/Supplied

"We need a regulatory framework that at times protects us against ourselves in times of heated emotion," Gallavin says.

The Law Society says a standards committee could look into how Rawnsley, a lawyer, got through Auckland's border.

In a statement, Law Society president Tiana Epati says: "Lawyers are not essential workers. Rather, to facilitate appropriate access to justice, it was agreed with the Ministry of Justice and police that lawyers would be provided with a letter which states that travel by lawyers is allowed but only for the purposes of attending priority court proceedings."

It's not yet clear whether Rawnsley used that letter.

"The Law Society expects this letter to be used only for the purpose it was provided," says Epati.

Even before their names were suppressed on Monday evening, Willis and Rawnsley claim they had received death threats.

"This kind of fear, it's driving outrage, it's driving cruelty, and social media, particularly I think Facebook and Twitter, people don't actually think about how that's a human being," says psychiatrist Chris Gale, a senior lecturer at Otago University's department of psychological medicine.

While he doesn't condone the actions of Willis and Rawnsley, Gale says those abusing the pair need to take some time and reflect.

"I think they feel virtuous. I think it makes them feel good, it makes them feel like somebody else is bad," he tells Newshub.

Like clockwork, a new "somebody else" emerged on Wednesday - a person who travelled from Auckland to Whakatāne earlier this week.

It turned out they were able to travel due to concerns for their safety, and have been receiving support. But by then they'd already been judged online and from the podium.

"The majority of people in Auckland are doing it tough for the rest of the country and we thank them for that. The actions of, if there are a handful of people who aren't doing that, they're undermining the collective team effort and they shouldn't," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told media.

Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

Gale says that kind of "team" rhetoric just stokes the social media flames further.

"It felt like they were no longer part of us, they were part of them, and there was a huge amount of hatred. That hatred is not normally part of New Zealand."

Willis and Rawnsley are still yet to be charged by police.