Justice's blindfold appears to have slipped in Grant Hannis' sexual assault case

by The Listener / 31 January, 2019

Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

Any sniff of systemic favouritism to prominent people damages public respect for our justice system. Grant Hannis' case appears to risk just that.

Justice’s blindfold appears to have slipped. The discounted sentence handed down to Massey University associate professor Grant Hannis for a despicable crime – partly in recognition of his standing in society – risks sending the wrong message.

Hannis indecently assaulted a defenceless 82-year-old dementia patient, in what should have been the sanctuary of her rest-home bedroom, and was sentenced to eight months’ home detention and 100 hours of community work and ordered to pay $3000 in emotional-harm reparation.

The suspicion lingers in the public mind that had he been a plumber, sales executive or factory hand, he’d have faced a stiffer penalty.

Judge Stephen Harrop said Hannis, 55, had suffered a “very substantial fall from grace”, and was getting a lesser sentence than might otherwise have been due, partly in acknowledgement of the “penalty” of having his name suppression lifted. Other factors included his admission of guilt (a discount of 25%), contributions to the community and previous good character (10%), his (later) expressed remorse and the unlikelihood of further offending, all of which combined to practically mandate a non-custodial sentence, given the formulation rules for sentencing that stipulate judges must choose the least restrictive option.

But the discretion that allowed the judge to designate name publication as a part of Hannis’ penalty is surely a flaw in our system. There is nothing in statute that states publication of a convicted person’s name may justify a discounted sentence.

Yet judges do have discretion. In 2000, reputation was used to justify a discounted prison term for serial rapist and abuser Morgan Fahey, a doctor who preyed on his patients. This rationale was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The now-prevailing Sentencing Act 2002 does not prescribe falls from grace as discount triggers. But Judge Harrop told Hannis: “There ought to be a discount to recognise the effect of publication on you as a form of penalty.”

This discretion invites an unwelcome perception of different rules for the prominent.

Name suppression should surely be the very rare exception, not the rule. Its lifting should certainly not be “points in the bank” to weigh against punishment for a crime. And when a crime is as heinous and pitiless as this one, there should be no question of secrecy, unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect children or victims.

Any suggestion that Hannis escaped any part of his due sentence because of his reputation raises an unacceptable corollary: that a non-prominent offender with a more routine career history would get a harsher penalty for the same crime.

The sentencing formula in this case was not that simple, with several other factors also taken into account. But any sniff of systemic favouritism to prominent people damages public respect for our justice system.

To give any consideration to an offender’s hitherto fine standing overlooks the fact that one’s reputation is in one’s own hands. It was Hannis himself who sullied his reputation when he indecently assaulted the woman. His personal reputation or past success in no way minimises or mitigates the damage done to her and should be of no relevance. Judge Harrop described the offending as a form of home invasion; other aggravating factors included the victim’s vulnerability and the degree of force and persistence.

As the victim’s family told the court, her irremediable “discount” is that she was hugely distressed by the assault, and her condition has since deteriorated.

This was an offence by a well-educated man in full possession of his powers, whose lawyer could only offer that he was under personal and professional stress. In this day and age, who isn’t?

That’s another trend our justice system should guard against: attempts to use mental health as a shield or discount for offending. One does not suddenly commit a crime of the seriousness of Hannis’ purely because of stress or depression; nor is it an excuse.

Anyone can understand the victim’s family’s dismay at the range of “credits” afforded Hannis. These discounts, though the product of decades of legal, social and political deliberation, will always be controversial. But to add to them an offender’s reputational damage – as though the offender were also now a victim – is insupportable.

This editorial was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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