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Marc My Words - A day of shame for Victims Rights

Marc My Words - A day of shame for Victims Rights

3 June 2005

The 'Prisoners and Victims Claims Act' became law yesterday and marked a low point for Victim's Rights in New Zealand. For me it was a real body blow when I reflect on the huge stride we have made with the Victims Rights Act 2002 and the incremental improvements since that time. As I struggle to comprehend this backward step my despondency is overshadowed by the slap in the face for victims who were counting on a much better law, and who will experience the invidious consequences. The passage of the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act marks my worst day in Parliament since becoming an MP.

Clearly this was a difficult issue: but in light of the stories told by those who mattered most - the victims themselves, the legal arguments provided by a succession of so-called human rights lawyers failed to persuade me as I sat on the Select Committee.

The law achieves nothing when it remains anchored in the realm of ideology, spin and argument, and does not deliver to people seeking real justice. Those around the table were keen to do the well nigh impossible; namely, deprive inmates of a financial windfall while upholding our international obligations on human rights.

I suspect that the conflict arising from these apparently mutually exclusive imperatives is because the Minister of Justice is also our Minister of Foreign Affairs. This highlights a particular flaw in the allocation of ministerial responsibilities. The Minister of Justice should not also be the Minister of Foreign Affairs; one portfolio is concerned with victims' rights and the other with upholding New Zealand's international obligations, even those that (selectively) undermine victims' rights. On the one hand we need to ensure that remedies are available to inmates who have been genuinely wronged, while on the other make certain that they will not benefit in ways that force victims to be victimised all over again.

I suppose it is always easy to come up with solutions when you aren't the Government but I firmly believe that the United Nations should not dictate justice in our own country. Parliament must retain sovereignty over our criminal justice system. It is not Kofi Annan and his lot who will pick up the pieces of our victims' shattered lives. We must never allow any overseas body (to whom we can only ever be strangers) to dictate what our victims need.

In recognition of this difficulty United Future offered to support a moratorium on inmate claims until a realistic and lasting solution could be found. There was no reason to rush this legislation through just because the government is desperate to put this issue to bed before the election. And they did so with a sleazy deal with the Greens. A deal that the Greens' own Keith Locke stated in Parliament's chamber was "bad law"; a law that sells out victims' rights in favour of offenders' interests.

The law, passed under urgency, will enshrine the right of criminals to sue for a financial windfall - a right that is denied their victims. I don't know anyone who wants prisoners to be abused, including the victims of crime themselves. We heard submission after submission to that effect from those whom we would expect to have the least sympathy with the offenders - their victims. But equally, they don't want to have a legal relationship with their offenders for no other reason than to take their financial windfalls from them.

The best protection against inmate abuse is to punish those responsible, not to reward the criminals. If prison guards abuse prisoners then they should be charged and appear in court. Why should prisoners be handed a wad of cash for alleged abuse while the victims of the crime that put them behind bars are left without any compensation at all? We shouldn't forget why criminals are in prison in the first place.

The Labour Government put political expediency above the interests of the victims. And the Greens? They should hang their heads in shame. No one in their right mind could see their complicity as anything other than a cynical act of political desperation; it is their way of by ingratiating themselves with Labour. They may talk about fairness but who's kidding who? This Bill goes against the interests of justice, victims and commonsense. Prison is for punishment, not for criminals to make profit.

But now, as a result of this misguided Labour/Greens collusion, victims who have little interest in either the money or continuing legal proceedings are forced to litigate in order to remove compensation money from criminals.

This legislation is an affront to victims and was fought against by victims, victims' groups, by nearly all the political parties. In the end it passed because it was supported by the Greens.

They have spilt the blood of victims on the steps of our criminal justice system, but they will not silence their voice. The march of victims' rights will not be halted as long as there is breath left in those of us who want justice done.

It is actually quite simple; we want sentences given to the offenders that stick; we want the criminal justice system to be on our side - not the criminal's; and we want victims to be given a chance to get on with their lives knowing that society puts them first.


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