"Mr Z" has been convicted of protection order breaches amounting to psychological abuse, and is described in the Human Rights Review Tribunal decision as a cyber-stalker.

The Human Rights Review Tribunal calls him “Mr Z”. And the women he stalked recall how he would smirk across the courtroom at them, when the judge wasn’t looking – in a three-year civil court action they were forced to defend because of the legal backing provided to the man by a government-funded online safety organisation.

“He was a very good, great actor, who played the victim on the stand,” one of the women recalls. One time when they arrived in court, he walked a foot behind one of the women, “just following her, trying to intimidate her”.

The tribunal yesterday awarded $100,000 damages to three women, after it found Netsafe’s actions caused them to suffer humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to their feelings.

The organisation, which is contracted to investigate and resolve online bullying, instead supplied information about the women for a convicted stalker to take them to court. Netsafe regurgitated unfounded allegations about the women, without investigating them, providing the man a foundation with which to pursue a protracted civil case against them.

For three traumatising years, the women were forced to come face-to-face in court hearings with Mr Z, the man whom the police and courts were meant to protect them from. 

The damages order is another expensive blow to Netsafe, which has already warned it faces a financial loss as it spends money defending an employment action and resolving a bullying inquiry into former chief executive Martin Cocker and his wife, Angela Boundy.

Last night, Netsafe chair Colin James said the organisation accepted the judgment from the Human Rights Review Tribunal. “And we sincerely apologise to the individuals concerned,” he said. “We want to deliver the right outcomes for the people who use our service and will do everything we can to ensure we continue to do that.”

Not only did Netsafe prepare a case summary for the man without scrutinising his claims, but it breached the Privacy Act by refusing to provide the document to the three women so they could defend the man’s allegations in court.

The businessman had already been convicted of three representative charges of breaching a protection order by psychologically abusing an ex-girlfriend – one of two he was charged with harassing. 

“Every previous girlfriend was so scared of the guy,” one of the women said last night. “And he made their lives so, so much hell, that they just simply weren’t prepared to revisit them or put themselves in harm’s way again.

“In his 20-year history of victims, I’m the first who managed to get convictions. And that’s because of my perseverance and my refusal to give in to the guy, even though he put me through absolute hell, and I seriously thought he would kill me.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD as you tend to be after you think you’re going to die. I was in a prolonged state of being in physical fear – walking home from work, thinking he was going to jump out from behind a power pole and stab me to death. That’s how I lived for six months. And that takes a toll.”

But soon after Mr Z was convicted, he approached Netsafe asking the agency to put his case against the two ex-partners, and a third woman who they worked with. He claimed they had harassed him by disclosing his behaviour in private social posts, and he sued them under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.

“After he was convicted, I didn’t work for a year at all, because I was so destroyed. And I was in therapy once a week for that whole time, just trying to rehabilitate. And just when I’d finally got rid of him in the Family Court, he took this action. He was starting this action in that very same week – so with obviously clear anticipation of keeping me engaged.”

Netsafe is the approved agency under the Act, contracted by government to investigate and attempt to resolve complaints. But it did neither on this occasion, instead simply uncritically rubber-stamping the convicted stalker’s claims so he was able to lodge court action. The Ministry of Justice form for making an application for an order under the Act requires the applicant to attach a case summary prepared by Netsafe.

Martin Cocker is singled out in the tribunal ruling. In his evidence, he admitted that Netsafe was subject to the Privacy Act – but claimed the Harmful Digital Communications Act and the Privacy Act were at loggerheads with each other.

He accepted that if the women had access to the information Netsafe held about them, they could have had a basis to question certain facts referred to in Judge Doherty’s decision.

He acknowledged it was his decision how to treat the claims made about the women – actions the tribunal says were genuine, but misguided.

“The fact that the District Court Judge had declined Mr Z’s request for anonymity and considered that there was no evidence of any specific threat of immediate or future physical harm to Mr Z, was given no weight by Netsafe when deciding whether to release information to the three women,” the tribunal rules. “Mr Cocker accepted that this information was relevant to consideration of the personal information requests.”

Last night, two of the women demanded greater scrutiny of the $4 million in public contracts that have been awarded to Netsafe, and of any public funding sought by Cocker’s new company, the Online Safety Exchange Ltd.

“I’ve had to watch [and] listen to Cocker on the news and print media talking about domestic violence issues, like he’s an expert,” said one of the women, who has spent the past eight years recovering from the harm and legal repercussions of her short relationship with Mr Z.

“They bought Mr Z’s vexatious claims hook, line and sinker, and in fact their conduct became more and more obtuse and offensive to the victims with each interaction.”
– complainant

Another of the women said the Netsafe chair’s statement about people who use the organisation’s service showed they still did not comprehend the implications of their actions. “We did not ‘use their service’ – a convicted criminal used their service to abuse us, and Netsafe’s actions enabled him,” she said. 

“Their statement reinforces that they simply do not understand the nuances of coercive control and abuse and therefore it is inappropriate that they continued to be funded as an agency to assist victim survivors of abuse.

“They bought Mr Z’s vexatious claims hook, line and sinker, and in fact their conduct became more and more obtuse and offensive to the victims with each interaction.”

She particularly criticised Cocker’s actions. “Legal system abuse is frequently experienced as an extension of an intimate partner’s coercive control and yet Mr Cocker continued to deny these ladies the information they were entitled to.”

She said Netsafe received significant funding from the ministries of education and justice, and she asked that those agencies be accountable for their spending of taxpayers’ money. “The Tribunal’s decision highlights some significant issues with Netsafe’s performance, and given their other publicly reported issues it is only appropriate that an independent inquiry is undertaken regarding their ability and suitability to fulfil the role and functions they are currently employed for.”

She also said there should be further inquiries completed before Cocker’s new business received any public funding. “Clearly given this Human Rights Review Tribunal decision and the ongoing issues faced by Netsafe, it wouldn’t be appropriate for any public money to fund such a venture until the Employment Relations Authority and other issues are independently investigated.”

Newsroom has approached Cocker with questions, but received no response.

“We took an overly cautious approach to protect the information disclosed to us but there was no intent on our part to be obstructive.”
– Colin James, Netsafe

Colin James said Netsafe staff had incorrectly interpreted the Privacy Act. “We took an overly cautious approach to protect the information disclosed to us but there was no intent on our part to be obstructive.”

“This event occurred a number of years ago, and since that time Netsafe has implemented several new processes which have improved our operating procedures and approach to information requests.

“People who use Netsafe’s incident response service can be reassured the information they disclose will be protected in accordance with the Privacy Act 2020 and Netsafe’s Privacy and Information Statement.

“Netsafe remains committed to helping keep people safe online and ensuring our service minimises the distress people are experiencing from digital communications while quickly reducing the harm.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Netsafe received funding from the Department of Internal Affairs. In fact, the department used the organisation’s research but Netsafe was not paid for that use.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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