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Attorney-General’s constitutional duties laid bare as Judith Collins takes silk

28 Mar 2024

| Author: Reweti Kohere

Newly-minted KC Judith Collins has been reminded of her constitutional responsibility to fiercely uphold the rule of law and guard the administration of justice from unfair criticism at a ceremony in Auckland last week where the government’s most senior law officer was called to the inner bar.

Presiding over Collins’ investiture as King’s Counsel, Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann said the Attorney-General’s role was to defend the judiciary “by answering improper or unfair public criticism and by discouraging ministerial and parliamentary comments from criticising judges and their decisions”.

The reminder comes a month after Resources Minister and New Zealand First deputy leader Shane Jones railed against the “Americanisation” of New Zealand’s judiciary and accused the country’s top judges of having “flexed their muscles” in the recent Smith v Fonterra judgment, which permitted legal action from climate activist Mike Smith against several large climate polluters to continue to trial.

In the historical courtroom one at the High Court at Auckland, Collins was joined by family and friends, heads of bench and current and past judges, nearly 30 King’s Counsel and members of the profession to see the MP for Papakura take silk.

Addressing the bar’s newest senior counsel, Chief Justice Winkelmann said Collins’ role was “inevitably challenging” as the attorney-general was also a politician and a member of the government. “Strong legal skills and strong character are needed; in particular, an independence of mind and above all, courage. In New Zealand, we’ve been lucky a succession of attorneys-general have brought to bear such skill,” the chief justice said.

“As I look forward to your time as Attorney-General, I am confident that you see the role clearly and understand the gravity of what your responsibility entails.”

 

Fiercest defenders

The rank of King’s Counsel was the highest honour that could be conferred on lawyers, reserved for “the strong, the upright, the learned and the brave”, said Chief Justice Winkelmann. The call to the inner bar was not about “prestige or flattery” though; service to one’s clients, in compliance with their duties as a lawyer and an officer of the court, characterised the appointment.

“Still more fundamentally, it requires of them service to the administration of justice and to the rule of law,” the chief justice said, adding that senior counsel are expected to be guided by “those two imperatives in all actions they take”. Consequently, those who carry the rank “will be active in their support of these principles; that indeed, they will be their fiercest defenders”.

The Crown’s two law officers, the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, bore particular responsibilities to uphold the rule of law and the administration of justice. “For all of these reasons, it is appropriate that eligible attorneys-general should be in the rank of King’s Counsel,” Chief Justice Winkelmann said.

Across her 15 years in politics, Collins has held various ministerial portfolios associated with the justice system, including Corrections, Police, and Justice itself. This experience “has deepened your understanding of the importance of a strong and efficient justice system and an independent judiciary”, Chief Justice Winkelmann said.

“Ms Collins, you have demonstrated all that is required of King’s Counsel. The senior bar is strengthened by your addition to it. Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui.”

 

To be just and fear not

Passing on the New Zealand Bar Association’s “warmest congratulations”, and speaking for the New Zealand Law Society (NZLS), President Frazer Barton said taking silk was a great achievement as it has been “a mark of quality” for centuries.

Collins served as vice president of NZLS and took on other leadership roles, including advocating for gender equality as a member of the organisation’s women’s consultative committee, Barton said. “Leadership is not easy. It takes strength to hold to the right path. Speaking up in the face of unpopular opinion is often needed. As a leader of the profession, the attorney knew the importance of a strong, united legal profession and the vital role it plays in upholding the rule of law and the administration of justice.”

As the government’s most senior law officer, the AttorneyGeneral’s protection of the judiciary from unfair criticism would allow judges to uphold New Zealand’s laws without fear or favour. The profession would support Collins in this “important endeavour”, Barton said. “As a previous leader of this organisation, the attorney knows our motto for over 155 years: ‘To be just and fear not’. We know she will continue to carry this with her in her role as attorney-general and in this important appointment as King’s Counsel.”

Speaking on behalf of The Law Association as its vice president, Julie-Anne Kincade KC said Collins’ journey from practising as a commercial lawyer to becoming a “venerated figure” with the legal community was a “narrative of resilience and enduring commitment to the ideals of justice”.

Having served as vice president to the late Sir Robert Chambers QC of what was then known as the Auckland District Law Society (ADLS), Collins’ succession to the top job meant she not only became the youngest president in the organisation’s history, “but also the first mother – an impressive achievement”, Kincade said.

“Judith, as you continue in your role as Attorney-General and embrace the honour of King’s Counsel, may you carry forward the same zeal, dedication and wisdom that have defined your remarkable career to date.” ■

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