While the Government forged ahead with controversial proposals to change hate speech laws last year, an associated reform to hate crime legislation was left by the wayside.
For more than a year after the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15 terror attacks first recommended hate crime laws be updated, officials provided no advice to ministers on the project. When asked in an Official Information Act request to supply all advice from officials relating to hate crime reform since the Royal Commission issued its report, then-Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said the first briefing didn’t come until January 2022.
More advice has been supplied since, although it was withheld under a provision of the Official Information Act which protects policies that are still being formulated.
Green Party justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said the delay was “disheartening”.
“I’m surprised and disappointed, as the communities will be, given especially that it’s the work on the hate crimes. That change, unlike the hate speech recommendations, is actually something that’s very basic and has very broad support across sectors including New Zealand Police.”
The January 2022 briefing shows Ministry of Justice officials have previously considered and rejected changes to hate crime laws.
“When the issue of hate-motivated offending has been raised in the past, Ministry of Justice officials have felt that our current system – dealing with hate motivation as part of sentencing – was a better approach than specific offences. However, following the [Royal Commission] recommendation the Ministry of Justice is revisiting the issue,” officials wrote.
The ministry insists this reluctance did not inform the delay on hate crime reform. Questions to the ministry on the year-long delay went unanswered for more than a week but the ministry’s general manager for criminal justice issues Brendan Gage provided a statement to Newsroom late on Tuesday.
“The Ministry of Justice’s work programme is determined by the minister in consultation with the ministry,” he said. “Officials’ views have not had any impact on timeframes relating to this work.”
Gage said work began on the hate crime reform programme in the second half of 2021 but didn’t provide any further specificity.
“I think what the officials said [in the briefing] is actively misleading, because there isn’t a current approach to hate crimes in our justice system. They don’t exist,” Ghahraman said.
“You can record within the sentencing notes to the judge that, as an aggravating factor of committing an ordinary crime, there was presence of hate. But there is no present system, so that’s actively misleading the previous minister. I would say officials should be called out on that.”
The news comes after Newsroom reported in May that the advisory group set up to monitor the Government’s progress in fulfilling the Royal Commission’s recommendations has privately and repeatedly expressed concern to Andrew Little about the delays to hate speech and hate crime reform. Little is the minister responsible for implementing the commission’s recommendations, but new Justice Minister Kiri Allan has responsibility for the hate speech and hate crime reforms.
Allan declined to comment for this story but said she could say more on the subject in the near future.
The Royal Commission said New Zealand should have specific hate-motivated alternatives to assault, intimidation and other offences. Under current law, someone who commits a racist or homophobic assault would be charged with assault, though the hateful motivation can be considered during sentencing.
The commission’s recommendations would align New Zealand with the United Kingdom, where a person who commits a racist assault could be charged with a racially-aggravated assault, which also carries a stiffer sentence.
“We’re not talking about creating new crimes, per se. What we’re saying is if you’ve committed a criminal act – already criminal – but has a motive that’s based on hate, that we would record that,” Ghahraman said.
“It’s the bare minimum that marginalised communities that have been impacted by hate activities should have been able to expect as a response to the Christchurch terror attack itself.”