The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case
A City Possessed:
A City Possessed is an unusual book in the miscarriage of justice literature and the Peter Ellis case is an unusual case.
The case is unusual because most miscarriage of justice cases are about whether the accused committed the offences, or someone else. In this case the question is whether the offences took place at all.
The book is unusual because it takes in far more than just the story of the case. In particular Lynley Hood gives us an intelligent and astute criticism of changes made in 1989 to the rules of evidence for child sexual abuse cases and also of the limits, imposed by Parliament or by the court itself, to the Court of Appeal's powers to review cases properly on appeal.
This book has already received plenty of publicity and the question has been asked "how can Lynley Hood be right and a High Court judge and jury, three reviews and two Court of Appeal decisions be wrong?"
The reader will find that is not a fair question. As Hood makes clear, each of the judicial hearings and inquiries suffered from limitations which destroyed its usefulness as a genuine inquiry into the case.
The key issue in the Ellis prosecution was the credibility of the child witnesses. Hood argues that the defence was prevented from showing the jury clearly unbelievable evidence which would have undermined the credibility of the witnesses, and the Court of Appeal did not examine it either.
The second Court of Appeal judgment was more about the way the appeal was conducted than about the merits of the case. The three extra-judicial inquiries were either limited by their terms of reference or perfunctory. No proper review of the police inquiry has ever been carried out.
Hood tells this story as dispassionately as is possible in such circumstances. She sets out matters in such an even-handed manner that after reading about the trial one feels that the conviction in respect of one child was probably merited. But this was the same child who subsequently made a full retraction with the result that the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions.
The first Court of Appeal inquiry examined only some of the witnesses' evidence and concluded that it was reliable. But being only a partial review, it was not sufficient to come to that conclusion. Even extracts of evidence, however, can show that a witness was confused, confusing and self-contradictory, and Hood provides enough such extracts to show that the witnesses in this case were all these things.
This book deals sufficiently intelligently with legal issues to provide real meat for informed debate, while at the same time being sufficiently compellingly written to keep the general reader engaged. It raises questions about our legal system which must be answered.
Longacre Press, hb $59.95