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NZ Herald
January 12 2008

Call for inquiry into justice system ignored: ex-judge
by Phil Taylor

Sir Thomas Thorp


There is no prospect that the Government will set up an independent specialist tribunal to investigate claims of miscarriage of justice, says the former High Court judge who estimates as many as 20 people may be wrongly in New Zealand jails.

Sir Thomas Thorp recommended the setting-up of a specialist tribunal two years ago after making an extensive study of how potential miscarriages were dealt with elsewhere.

He concluded there were significant shortcomings in our review systems and that the incidence of miscarriages had been underestimated.

However, despite a special tribunal being recommended by Parliament's justice and law reform committee, and Sir Thomas's proposals receiving support from both practising lawyers and academics, there has been no official action.

The reaction from the Ministry of Justice, which oversees measures for reassessing convictions, has been muted.

Sir Thomas told the Weekend Herald that the Justice Department seemed to be "regrettably turf-conscious".

The Government said a year ago that it planned to look at the Thorp proposals in conjunction with its "overall strategy of reducing the incidence of crime, helping victims and targeting hardcore criminals and violent criminal activity".

But Sir Thomas said he had heard nothing to indicate progress.

"I think myself now that my proposals will not be adopted or progressed by the present Government. But [MP Richard] Worth tells me that the National caucus supported his action last year in filing a private member's bill."

Dr Worth's member's bill, which still awaits a ballot, proposes the setting up of a fully independent and appropriately staffed and resourced authority which would put before the courts for reconsideration any claims of miscarriage which its investigations showed had merit.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said in a letter to Dr Worth in November that his member's bill was too broad and might have unwarranted constitutional and fiscal consequences and would not be supported by the Government.

Dr Cullen said the Government was reviewing options to improve organisational arrangements, of which an independent body was one.

Sir Thomas noted that new evidence relating to the Peter Ellis Christchurch creche case produced in articles recently published in the New Zealand Law Journal "must add to concerns expressed previously that that case may have gone awry".

While he understood there was still a theoretical possibility of appeal to the Privy Council, "an investigation by an independent specialist authority would in my view be the best means of obtaining an effective reconsideration of those verdicts".

Sir Thomas reviewed the case for the Secretary of Justice in 1999 and concluded that the two petitions for a pardon raised "a considerable number of issues sufficiently to point to a need for further investigation".

His report identified child evidence reliability interviewing techniques, potential contamination as central and said that if concerns expressed by several experts proved to have general support, "it would in my view be difficult to argue against the existence of a serious doubt about the safety of the convictions".

The Court of Appeal also indicated a commission of inquiry was best suited to test expert opinion.


Sir Thomas Thorp:

                No show for miscarriages of justice tribunal under this Government

                Ministry of Justice "regrettably turf conscious"

                New evidence adds to concerns Ellis case "may have gone awry"