Chief Justice Involved in ‘Recusal’ Argument

Published: Fri 18 Dec 2009 11:46 AM
Chief Justice Involved in ‘Recusal’ Argument – Supreme Court Battles Intensify
The Siemer/Stiassny argument has reached right to the top of the judicial heap
The ‘recusal’ and bias arguments against Supreme Court judges has taken on new energy with a Queen’s Counsel making serious allegations in respect of Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias’ role in a case involving her husband, Hugh Fletcher.
The Chief Justice is now becoming embroiled herself in a ‘recusal’ issue, which threatens the future of her fellow jurist, Justice Bill Wilson.
The Stiassny-Siemer defamation battle, a turf war that has been fought viciously for some years and has resulted in one of the largest-ever defamation awards in New Zealand legal history, as well as seeing maverick publisher Vince Siemer jailed, has reared its head again and has Dame Sian Elias, the Chief Justice, at centre stage.
The National Business Review reported this week on a case involving Dame Sian’s husband, Hugh Fletcher who together with Auckland Receiver Michael Stiassny both sit on the board of energy company Vector Limited.
Vector is presently involved in a Supreme Court appeal which, according to documents filed by Vince Siemer’s lawyer, Robert Lithgow QC, directly affect herself and her husband through both financial and horse racing interests the parties jointly share.
Michael Stiassny is also chairman of the New Zealand Racing Board. Both Hugh Fletcher and Dame Sian are enthusiastic racing industry investors and participants. The major issues for Justice Bill Wilson also involves racing, centering upon his heavy financial involvement with Auckland QC Alan Galbraith in the Rich Hill Stud operation.
Justice Wilson’s involvement has lead to a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, David Gasgoigne, who in turn has recruited the assistance of former Australian Chief Justice Murray Gleeson to determine how the complaint issue against the judge should be handled.
The National Business Review reported on the issue involving Dame Sian, saying there was an “intersection of relationships” that gave rise to an appearance of bias that was sufficient to require the Chief Justice to ‘recuse’ herself from the appeal involving Vector, and therefore her husband.
The NBR reports that Robert Lithgow said Liquidator Stiassny was a powerful, well resourced man. ”As a company director and a professional receiver and liquidator of companies he sometimes reported directly to High Court judges or associate judges,” Lithgow said.
“In that role he no doubt holds many secrets and confidences of the Auckland business community and beyond. But now, what was essentially his private interest argument with another businessman, now has the support of the State through the junior law officer,” which evidently is a reference to Solicitor General David Collins QC, a staunch supporter of Justice Wilson.
Lithgow said that the restructuring of Vector Limited, a controversial move that was subject to heavy criticism and debate, saw Hugh Fletcher remain on the board.
“Does that make him aligned to Mr Stiassny, beholden to Mr Stiassny, wary or proud to be associated with him?” Lithgow says.
He said the question must be how that relationship factors into the relationship between Mr Fletcher and is wife – Chief Justice Elias.
“If the judge has to pause for one split second to consider whether if her decision, or her agreement attaches to a decision, harms Mr Stiassny’s interests…could that in turn do harm to her husband’s interests, then what is an entirely proper protective instinct of a spouse…becomes a liability to detached and dispassionate decision making.”
Meanwhile, Vince Siemer has a civil rights claim to the Court of Appeal naming Dame Sian as a defendant and which alleges a miscarriage of justice, as well as a Supreme Court appeal.

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