Gift to fund research of legal system.
Written by Dean Calcott.
Two Christchurch philanthropists have donated $1 million to establish the country’s first research centre aimed at improving the legal system after their own battle for justice over a damaged building.
The donation by Grant and Marilyn, as trustees of the Gams Foundation, to the University of Otago is part of the university’s Leading Thinkers initiative. . It will be matched by the Government’s Partnerships for Excellence scheme.
Grant Nelson said the Legal Issues Centre, opened last night, would undertake research on a more accessible, affordable and efficient legal system. It would also investigate how the courts could better arrive at a fair outcome for users.
He said the idea for the centre arose during a five –year legal battle to get a company to pay for $900,000 damage done to a building it leased from the Gama Foundation.
“While we eventually won the case after putting in a lot of hard work, we came to the conclusion that the way the legal system and many lawyers operated was very unsatisfactory,” he said.
He agreed with a statement by Justice John Hansen in the F.W. Guest Memorial Lecture at the university last year. The judge said he believed New Zealand needed
“ a radical rethink as to how we resolve disputes, the law is no longer a profession – it is a business,” he said .
Nelson said he hoped research findings would influence changes to the legal system and bring about a system that served the best interests of citizens, “ rather than serving the best interests of lawyers and the law”.
For example, it would look at the need for deposition hearings, which have largely been done away with in Britain.
Otago Faculty of Law dean Mark Henaghan said the new centre would act as “ critic and conscience “ of the legal system. “The danger is that the law community can become clubbish and more interested in protecting its own interests than in preventing lawyers from working the system for their own ends,” he said. Recent criminal trials had prompted calls for a critical assessment of the adversarial system, which relied on the skill of advocates rather than a neutral judge to determine the truth of a case, Henaghan said.
Under the Gama Foundation’s endowment, a director will be appointed to a chair in legal issues, at associate professor or professor level, and teach as well as research. .
The centre will prepare submissions to the Justice Minister and the Law Commission on how changes can create a justice system that better serves the public.