Observer, Volume XXVIII, Issue 33, 2 May 1908, Page 3
Old Age and the Pension
THE proper administration of the Old Age Pensions Act demands that the work shall be in the hands of a magistrate who unites with considerable knowledge of the world a reasonable amount of sympathy with the claims of the unfortunate. For it was never intended by the framers of the Act that it should be interpreted with too great stringency, and least of all that it should be harshly used as a means of punishment for trivial lapses from the path of rectitude. This is sufficiently proved by the liberality of its provisions as to the character of the evidence which is made admissible in support of claims to the pension. Clearly, the intention of the Act was that all persons of small means who are 65 years of age and have lived reputably in the colony for 25 years should receive the pension.
But what constitutes a reputable life? On this point, Mr Dyer, S.M., who has charge of the issue of pension orders in the Auckland district, holds peculiar and distinctly narrow views. The particular provision of the Act bearing upon the point requires that an applicant shall be "of good moral character," and for the five years immediately preceding his or her application shall have led a " sober and reputable life." Here it is that a magistrate's penetration and sympathy are most called for. Mr Dyer, however, has proved himself to be a functionary in whom these qualities are singularly lacking for a man in his position. He holds that any person who has been even once convicted of drunkenness within five years cannot be said to be sober and reputable, and on this ground has recently turned back more than one otherwise deserving applicant.
A harsher or more unreasonable reading of the provision it is hardly possible to conceive. One solitary lapse from the path of temperance, if it comes under the notice of the police, is held to be proof of general insobriety ! Does not Mr Dyer see in his court every week instances of persons whose conduct has until that moment been unimpeachable, but who have yielded to special temptation for once and over-stepped the bounds of temperance? Such a person may have been a teetotaller, oi at any rate a very moderate drinker, up to the very day of his fall, and may never again appear in the dock. The very fact of previous total abstention may, indeed, have contributed to his lapse, for an old person of sixty who has been unaccustomed to liquor may succumb to the effects of taking a single glass of beer or spirits. Yet for so trivial an offence, he is to be debarred from receiving the pension for any period from one to five years — perhaps altogether, seeing that at such an age the " expectation of life" is not great. r * « •
So severe a penalty for a single act of insobriety is simply monstrous, and could never have been contemplated. Actually, it extends the applicant's punishment for his one peccadillo to anything from £26 to £130. And that peccadillo, if committed by a person of lesser age, and less prone to be "softheaded," would be considered to be fully expiated by a fine of a few shillings and costs, and would only be brought up against him in assessing the punishment for a subsequent similar offence. So outrageous a penalty would never be imposed by any magistrate who aimed at making " the punishment fit the crime."
Nor does the wording of the clause require it. Had the Legislature meant to exclude from the pension any per- son who has been convicted once of drunkenness within five year?, it could and would have said so. Instead, it framed the provision in general terras, with the obvious intention of leaving a wide discretionary power in the hands of the magistrate. " A sober and reputable life" manifestly refers to the general reputation of the ap- plicant. That reputation, if it has been good, cannot be said to be ob-
literated by one not very serious slip, possibly repented of as soon as it was committed, and in any case punished already to tbe extent provided for by law. That the public interest-as well as the terms of the Act demand thait all unworthy persons should be defrom receiving the pension, is true enough. But Mr Dyer's extraordinary interpretation would shut out large numbers of thoroughly deserving people. It conforms to neither law, humanity, nor common sense.