The Press
June 12 2003

Heed this petition

When A City Possessed, Lynley Hood's book on the Peter Ellis case, was published more than a year ago the Minister of Justice, Phil Goff, seemed to take a kind of pride in letting it be known that he had not read it, writes The Press in an editorial.

At the time he apparently did not think he needed to. He continued instead to insist, presumably on the advice of his civil servants, that it contained nothing new to cause him to reconsider the case. Mr Goff has since taken a look at parts, at least, of the book. So have many others.

A distinguished group of those other readers has been so stirred by what the book contains that their names have been added to a petition calling for a royal commission of inquiry into the case. It is an extraordinarily mixed group. The petitioners whose names have been publicised so far include two former Labour prime ministers, two former Cabinet ministers, law professors, eminent QCs, the publisher of the Right-wing National Business Review and the editor of the Left-wing Listener, the former governor of the Reserve Bank and now National MP Don Brash and assorted Left and Right-wing writers. Some Labour Party MPs had been going to sign until warned off by party whips.

Mr Goff, however, remains unmoved, either by his reading of the book or the prospect of this petition. He will do nothing, he has said, unless the petitioners present him with new evidence. Mr Goff should change his mind.

One can understand his reluctance to do so. Peter Ellis was tried, found guilty, has had two appeals plus a ministerial inquiry, and has failed at each step. He has served his sentence and is now free. Surely it is time to forget about the whole unsavoury mess. Besides, royal commissions are cumbersome and expensive devices, the heavy artillery of the governmental investigative apparatus, to be reserved only for the most serious of cases.

The problem is that the Ellis case will not go away. It is conventional to suggest that
Christchurch was gripped by a witch-hunt at the time, but that is not entirely true. Although some crucially important people involved in it were driven by heated emotions, profound doubts about the case emerged among cooler heads at the outset. Those doubts have deepened as more people have read the witness statements and considered the evidence recited in Lynley Hood's book. The statements of the child witnesses all of whom were young at the time of the trial and some very young at the time of the alleged offences appear confused, self-contradictory, and unreliable. A thorough re-examination of all that evidence is necessary to lay those doubts to rest.

The appeal process has failed to do that. The Court of Appeal is avowedly reluctant to interfere with jury verdicts, being concerned mostly with whether the correct procedure is followed. In this case it read only extracts of the troublesome witness statements. Except where one child witness recanted her testimony, it found no grounds to interfere with the verdict. The later ministerial inquiry was narrowly focused on whether interviews with the children had been conducted according to best practice or whether anything in the investigation or the interviews had made their testimony unreliable. That inquiry found that all it had been asked to examine was sound. But the narrowness of these processes was inadequate to answer the questions that have been raised.

A thorough-going inquiry such as a properly established royal commission would lay these questions to rest. Parties on both sides of the divide deserve to have them rigorously examined and answered. Doubts about the quality of the justice seen in this case cannot be airily dismissed. If they are, there is a real risk they will persist and will corrode confidence in the justice system.

Similar problems in
England have caused such severe damage that an entirely new appeal system was established. That is not necessary here. But the calibre and status of those who have subscribed to the forthcoming petition for a royal commission should be enough to persuade Mr Goff that this is not merely a case being pursued by crackpots and obsessives. He should have the imagination and courage to heed the petitioners' call.