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Compensation for inmates

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice

4 October 2004

Media statement

Compensation for inmates

"Wrongs allegedly suffered by inmates while imprisoned are often minor when compared to the far greater wrongs that these offenders have committed against their own victims," says Justice Minister Phil Goff.

"It is therefore unsurprising that Ministers, along with the vast majority of the New Zealand public, find it offensive and wrong that inmates are awarded significant sums in compensation while their victims, or families of their victims, got nothing.

"The solution of simply denying compensation to inmates, my first and preferred option, would, however, be contrary to obligations New Zealand has accepted under international law, and contrary to practice in other Western democracies.

"I can, however, announce initiatives agreed by Cabinet today that will lessen the likelihood of inmates being granted compensation or gaining personal benefit from compensation payments while real victims miss out.

"Firstly, criteria will be set out in law governing and restricting the circumstances under which inmates may be awarded damages for breaches of the Privacy Act, Human Rights Act, and the Bill of Rights.

"These criteria will limit payment of damages to inmates to exceptional cases. They will also require inmates first, and as early as possible, to have taken advantage of all avenues of complaint to remedy the breach. It will not be sufficient for the inmate to put up with the breach and subsequently to seek compensation for it.

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"These guidelines will come into effect from the date of introduction of legislation, and will affect all proceedings not yet determined at that date.

"Secondly, the Ministry of Justice will lead a review of existing complaints procedures to ensure they are effective in practice. This will include procedures under the new Corrections Act, which comes into force at the start of next year, and measures proposed to enable New Zealand to ratify the Optional Protocol on Torture.

"Stopping the breaches is the most effective way of stopping compensation payments.

"Thirdly, a series of changes will be put into place to allow and facilitate civil claims by victims against their offenders.

"At present, the Statute of Limitation Act bans victims from bringing civil actions for damages against their offenders after six years.

"In the case of serious offenders, most neither have the resources at time of sentencing to pay reparations nor subsequently while in prison can they accumulate such resources.

"I will introduce legislation to suspend the limitation period while the offender is in prison, and consider doubling the limitation for victims of crime beyond that to 12 years.

"Victims will of course be able to bring civil claims for damages not only when the offender receives state compensation but also for any other windfall gains such as inheritance, the proceeds of any book written, or even winning lotto.

"With regard to state compensation, it will be a requirement that damages awarded to prisoners be held in trust for a specified period to allow victims to bring a claim against those damages.

"I am investigating the establishment of an independent body, which will be a judge, to determine victims' claims for damages so that victims need not go through a full court hearing to claim damages.

"Measures will also be taken to assist victims to take civil claims against offenders who have gained state compensation. This may be through finding an organisation like Victim Support to assist victims to bring proceedings.

"Alternatively, it may involve providing access to legal aid by all victims or families of victims in these circumstances.

"Cabinet has now approved the key features of this reform. However further work will need to be done by officials to deal with the detail of the proposed changes.

"I do not intend to rush the legislation, nor do I need to, given that it will apply to cases not yet determined by the date of its introduction.

"However I have asked officials to give the policy work and drafting their top priority so that legislation can be introduced as soon as possible," Mr Goff said.

ENDS

All Phil Goff’s media releases and speeches are posted at www.beehive.govt.nz

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