The Law Commission's issues paper, Alcohol in our Lives, dominates today's Herald. There may be much good in the paper, putting perhaps to one side the rather odd child-like personal alcohol experience statements that pepper the first few pages – other than being impressed by a student's artistic talent, for instance, we learn little from the "Adrian Mole" diary excerpt that records that students drink too much, while the experiences of "Wellington lawyer Ben Fairweather", lack even that artistic merit. But why is it the Law Commission's job to make recommendations of the sort indicated?

Sir Geoffrey's justified reply will be that he was asked by the previous Minister to do it. Fair enough, But much of this project seems to me like the core business of government departments, and involves the kind of policy that is better down within the policy process of the central government.

Obviously sometimes Law Commission reports will be controversial as a result of a suggested change to legal doctrine or legislation, and I would not argue for a second that the Law Commission not be interested in policy, but it should do so on matters where there is some value added by a "Law Commission", and save its "political capital" for those occasion where that law expertise requires it to be controversial . The report gains some prestige from being from "Law Experts" in the Herald, but the matters in the report are not 'law' so much as general policy debates about the kind of society in which we want to live. In my view it is the job of politicians to run those debates. They should get on with it, armed with the work of the public service that is employed to inform the position that Ministers take.

This matters because our Law Commission is a precious resource. My worry is that by being asked to do such intensively policy based work, the Commission is becoming either a standing commission of inquiry or just another government department. Either places the Commission's continued existence at risk when it gets the public or political mood wrong. And there is much actual law reform work that the Commission must be allowed to get on with. What is really important is that when we really need the Commission's legal expertise, it is not diluted by being seen as just another arm of government. What I earnestly hope is that Ministers will not burden the Commission like this again.


Geoff McLay




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