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Prisoner compo legislation will aid victims

Hon Phil Goff Minister of Justice

15 December 2004

Prisoner compo legislation will aid victims

Legislation introduced by Justice Minister Phil Goff to restrict monetary compensation to inmates, and to ensure victims are able to be compensated from any monies paid, is due to be given its first reading in Parliament today.

"The Prisoners and Victims Claims Bill will restrict compensation for inmates to exceptional cases, and assist victims to pursue compensation from offenders in those cases for the harm and loss they have suffered," Mr Goff said.

"Most people believe it is wrong that offenders should be compensated for wrongful treatment but in turn are not required to pay restitution to the victims they harmed.

"The Bill establishes guidelines that will limit eligibility for compensation for inmates. They will have to satisfy the court they made reasonable use of available complaints mechanisms without effective redress, and that no other form of remedy would be appropriate.

"These rules will restrict compensation to exceptional circumstances, and prevent prisoners tolerating breaches for longer than necessary in order to claim compensation. They will apply to all court decisions made after the Bill takes effect, including any cases pending at the time of enactment. "However the best solution to stopping compensation payments to inmates is to ensure that breaches do not occur in the first place. Justice officials are undertaking a review of all complaints mechanisms to ensure they are effective in stopping breaches, and changes will be made where appropriate.

"In the exceptional situation where compensation is to be paid, this Bill establishes a new mechanism which gives the prisoner's victims the opportunity and assistance to claim redress from that sum.

"Compensation, after any legal aid charges and unpaid reparation is deducted, will be held in trust. Steps will then be taken to identify and notify the prisoner's victims that money is available. They will have six months to file a claim.

"We will make this process as easy as possible for the victims. They will be made eligible for legal aid, and normal court fees will be waived.

"Claims will be determined by a District Court Judge sitting as a Victims’ Special Claims Tribunal. They will be determined on the papers, unless there are exceptional reasons to justify a hearing. The Tribunal will work from findings of fact in the criminal cases that led to the offender's conviction. Victims will not have to re-prove the details of the offender’s crime; they will only have to provide information about the harm or loss they have suffered.

"When all the claims against the offender are determined, the Tribunal may make orders for damages. Where there are multiple victims and insufficient funds to meet all the awards, the compensation will be divided proportionately.

"This new process will apply to any awards after the Bill takes effect, even if a case is already before the courts pending final determination.

"The Bill will also extend the time period in which victims can pursue claims by suspending the six-year limitation rule for all periods that the prisoner is in jail. All victims will benefit from this, irrespective of when the offence occurred, or whether the offender has sought compensation.

"Victims have always had the right to take civil claims for the harm or loss they have suffered. They rarely do so because such claims are usually pointless while the offender is in prison, and by the time the offender is released, the six-year limitation period may have expired.

"There will be those who will say that this Bill doesn’t go far enough and that compensation should never be paid to prisoners. That position is not sustainable under international law – a fact recognised by countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada and Great Britain, all of which allow prisoners to seek damages for breaches. It is also not sustainable in terms of our expectations that minimum standards will be upheld within our prisons.

"Others will say it goes too far. That also is incorrect.

"The Bill restricts as much as possible the circumstances that might give rise to compensation payments to inmates. Where payments are made, it maximises the prospect that victims will be the beneficiaries, and I make no apology for that," Mr Goff said.


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