Criminal defence lawyer Elizabeth Hall slams Government funding cuts to sentencing cultural reports 

A defence lawyer has criticised the Government's plans to cut funding for reports on offenders' backgrounds.     

The Government confirmed it was scrapping the funding on Wednesday.

Criminal Defence lawyer Elizabeth Hall told AM cutting funding for the Section 27 pre-sentencing reports will increase court sentencing times and undermine judges' ability to "pass fair, accurate, and humane sentences".    

Section 27 reports detail background information that might be deemed relevant to an offence such as substance abuse, mood disorders, neurodivergence, trauma, and state care history alongside others.     

The reports encourage courts to focus on rehabilitation and community engagement instead of simply sending offenders to prison, Hall said.    

As part of their sweeping cuts, the Government has decided to stop funding the reports with taxpayer money.     

In 2017, $40,000 was spent in funding the reports. Six years later, taxpayers were footing a bill of more than $7 million.  

"They are vital reports to pool all of that information together and provide it to the judge ahead of the sentencing so that when the sentencing occurs everybody in court is aware of those factors, what's going to stop offending in the future, and where resources are best targeted," Hall said.     

Asked why defence lawyers can't do the same role that the specialist report writers do, Hall said, "the report writers are specialists and have skills that can get to the nub of the issues".     

She said defence lawyers are not specialist alcohol and drug assessors, and the like.    

"We don't have the skills," she said.    

She warned if the onus is put on defence lawyers, "you're going to be there all day".    

National says money saved from cutting the funding would be better spent on victims of crime through counselling and financial assistance.   

As well as saving money, the Government said they are also cutting the funding to avoid giving money to those who are unduly profiting from the reports.     

The Government said a "cottage industry" has been created by funding the reports - spending $25 million on them since 2017.

Hall said the Defence Lawyer's Association, "know who the good report writers are".    

Additionally, legal aid must approve any funding sought for the reports.    

"If there is any concern about the cost or quality of the reports then we don't use those report writers," she said.     

Putting in place standards for report writers was discussed as an alternative to cutting the funding and Hall said this was preferable if the report writers were the concern.     

"To scrap the report funding completely is a retrograde step and if the information that was usually in those reports is presented to the courts it will blow out sentencing times and judge time," she said.     

She thinks the Government has not anticipated the built-in costs associated with scrapping the funding.     

The reports often lead to a reduction in an offender's sentence, something the government called Labour soft on crime for.     

Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith said, "the Government has wider concerns around massive reductions to sentences and will be introducing legislation to cap discounts at 40 percent".

National's policy document on cutting the funding said Labour had "weaponised" the Sentencing Act.   

However, Hall said, "the goal of the criminal justice system is not to send people to jail for as long as possible. The goal is to pass fair, accurate, and humane sentences which reduce offending".  

She said this was the key benefit of the reports.     

"We want to stop people offending. You want to put me out business," the defence lawyer said.   

"The only way to do that is to understand why crime is happening and what these reports do is unpick all of the drivers for that person's offending and then tell that to the judge.    

"It's vital information," she said.     

Without funding for the reports, Hall said the alternative is calling people orally to address the court and "that is going to be a disaster for the way sentencing happens".    

This information will be provided last minute meaning the judge will not have time to process it, Hall said.