Championing the rule of law
27 April 2012
Among topics explored at a well attended Lawyers in Government Conference yesterday were issues relating to ethics, public interest and delivering on the results being sought from better public services changes. Agency lawyers have a role to champion lawfulness, something that is not always appreciated by their colleagues who are focused on achieving particular policy outcomes. Interestingly speakers’ attention was on the professional obligations of practitioners and the concurrent obligations as government employees gained little attention.
Agency lawyers, in the same way as any other group in government that has a professional code of ethics, cannot subordinate their obligations to government. The Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services apply across the State Services, and the principles of public service specified in the Cabinet Manual have a continuing application. Guidance on Understanding the code of conduct recognises the complications of multiple obligations –
“ In some organisations, collective employment agreements …may recognise commitments under codes of conduct of relevant professional associations. Organisations must always have regard to their obligations to the Government and determine how they will comply with the requirements of the State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct when developing this type of agreement…”
The conference concluded with a superb address by Justice Joe Williams. He identified the characteristics of a good life as the outcomes of good government. Good government is delivered through the rule of law. The Judge seemed familiar with the World Justice Project findings although not referring specifically to this international programme for measuring and promoting compliance with the rule of law. He electrified the audience recounting the story of te Kooti, and abusive processes by officials over many years. The message was that government lawyers must be champions of the rule of law.
Of course that is the duty of everyone in government. Championing the rule of law is part of the spirit of service. It is explicit in being fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy.