Letters to the Editor

A lawyer who advises himself has a fool for a client!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012    

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Dear Editor,

Probably the public servant I least wish to find myself criticising is Contractor General Greg Christie. I don't doubt his commitment to the job and the last thing I wish to find myself doing is questioning his motives. I will even make excuses for what I deem to be curious behaviour and give him some slack when I am not sure about the accuracy of his statements. Therein lies the problem. None of us is above the law or so we have been taught to believe.

Mr Christie is a trained attorney but I would suspect and hope sincerely that his office takes advice from outside attorneys when he comes to the conclusion that a matter, though not obviously so, is within their jurisdiction. Usually for departments in the public sector this is the Attorney General's Department, but if you have the budget support and you feel it prudent, a department head can seek advice from outside council. There are sufficient examples of this in the public sector.

What has started to concern me is that I know of at least two occasions where the Attorney General's Department has stated that in his opinion the contractor general was acting outside his scope of authority. These were matters involving other public servants and they complied with his requests although advice received was that the contractor general was on an unauthorised expedition, essentially acting illegally, or ultra vires as they like to say, when a public servant is involved.

The thing about legal opinions is that they are just that - opinions. Hence the necessity for someone to seek an intervention from the court to give an opinion that actually counts, that is, a judicial review.

Public servants are not personally fettered by the cost of litigation as private individuals are, so they must avoid taking advantage of the citizenry or wasting taxpayers' money. By my count, the Office of the Contractor General has three applications for judicial review against it, and this leads to the following question: Is there really any oversight of the contractor general?

Learned attorney though he may be, I must remind Greg Christie of an old legal saying: A lawyer who advises or represents himself has a fool for a client.

Elliot Penn






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