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Law Firm Concerned About Cuts To Government Records Teams As MSD Settles Records Delays For $1.7million

A law firm that works with survivors of abuse in State care is concerned, but not surprised, by information that Oranga Tamariki and Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga plan to cut roles at the agencies’ critical records units.

Cooper Legal is currently settling several hundred claims for privacy breaches, which arose from the delayed processing of records requests that occurred before the current cuts were announced, or even envisioned. As part of the settlement, the Ministry of Social Development will pay survivors approximately $1.7 million in compensation for the delays.

This is the second time that the Ministry of Social Development has had to pay survivors significant settlements due to delays in providing their records.

Principal Partner at Cooper Legal, Sonja Cooper, who has been working for over 30 years to obtain redress for survivors of abuse in State care, says: “Unfortunately, we are very aware of the lengths the Crown will go to prevent survivors from accessing records that are pivotal for understanding what happened to them when they were placed in ‘care’.”

“Unfortunately, the announced cuts are nothing new. People placed in State care have been denied, or had limited, access to their own records for years, especially those held by Oranga Tamariki and the Ministry of Social Development.”

“Sadly, what we have seen in practice is what is coming to light now. Agencies use lack of financial and staff resources as a reason to delay record releases or refuse to release records at all. The agencies also use lack of appropriate staff training as an excuse for incorrect record redactions.

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“For example, Oranga Tamariki told Cooper Legal this week it would not provide survivors with extracts from institution-wide registers, which detail many things, including how long children were detained in Youth Justice cells. Oranga Tamariki justified its decision by saying its staff would need to review too many records.

“Inadequately resourcing record teams harms survivors and, as our current settlements show, is costly for taxpayers. Real financial responsibility means resourcing records teams to avoid paying compensation for delays. More importantly, it shows the State is not taking responsibility for the abuse it subjected vulnerable children and adults to in its care.

“The State has a long history of withholding survivors' records and information concerning abuse. It previously went so far as to withhold records from the New Zealand police and the New Zealand Medical Council concerning the torture perpetrated by Dr Leeks and others at Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, which was exposed as part of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. [1]

“We are currently waiting for the Royal Commission’s final report, which is due in late June. However, the Royal Commission has already made comprehensive recommendations to improve the State’s adversarial and poorly run redress processes. This includes improving survivors' access to records.

“The Royal Commission specifically recommended that State agencies should “have the necessary resources to respond in an appropriate and timely way” to survivors' requests for access to their records.[2]

“The proposal to disestablish the records and digitalisation teams is the complete opposite of what the Royal Commission recommended. This harms survivors. Cooper Legal, on behalf of survivors, is extremely concerned that this could even be considered an option moving forward.

“We have already had to challenge absurd arguments by multiple agencies for withholding survivors’ records in the High Court. It would be a pity for the Crown to push survivors to take further litigation because the State is poorly resourcing its records teams” Ms Cooper concluded.

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