As the Government weighs a record payout to a man wrongfully convicted of murder, it has had to pay a significant sum due to a data error in another case

The Government has paid more than $108,000 to a New Zealander who spent almost seven months in prison after being wrongfully convicted of driving while disqualified due to a data error.

The man who received the payout was sentenced to 16 months in prison in June 2013, after being convicted on two charges of driving while disqualified, among other offences.

According to a government summary of the case, the man had been barred from holding a driver’s licence for six months after failing to stop for police. However, the disqualification period was instead incorrectly recorded in the court’s case management system as six years, an error which was then replicated in police and NZTA records.

The man was subsequently convicted again for driving while disqualified in 2008, with an extended disqualification period meaning he would be eligible for a new licence at the end of 2011 (although he never applied for it).

But in March 2013, he was stopped at a police checkpoint on his way home from work and charged with driving while disqualified. The following day, he was pursued by police after failing to stop for them, with the man driving through red lights at high speeds while crossing the centre line and weaving to make sure police couldn’t pass him.

When his engine failed, he ran from police but was caught shortly after, saying he had fled as he was disqualified and didn’t want to go to prison.

After pleading guilty to two disqualification charges, along with other offences related to the police pursuit, he was sentenced to one year and four months in prison “on the mistaken basis … that he was disqualified at the time of the offending”.

“His decision to drive whilst believing he was disqualified was aggravated by his behaviour when signalled to stop by police.”
– Kris Faafoi, former justice minister

Having been released after about seven months, the error was only identified when the man’s lawyer brought it to the attention of the police before he faced sentencing on separate charges in 2016. The 2013 guilty pleas for driving while disqualified were eventually vacated and the charges withdrawn.

In a 2019 application for compensation, the man’s lawyer said he had not thought he was disqualified when he was first stopped in 2013, with the charge coming “as somewhat of a surprise to him”. “This triggered memories about his past, which caused ‘a relapse and panicked offending the next day’.” 

The man’s lawyer at the time of the 2013 case said he had thought he was still qualified, while a summary of facts related to the charges stated the man had told police he was disqualified when first stopped.

In a 2021 report to Cabinet seeking approval for compensation, then-Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said the man’s innocence had effectively been established given the error with the disqualification order.

However, the Government still needed to consider whether compensation was in the interests of justice given the man had still driven without obtaining a new licence, and in the second incident “clearly believed he was still disqualified but decided to drive anyway”.

“His decision to drive whilst believing he was disqualified was aggravated by his behaviour when signalled to stop by police.”

Faafoi proposed compensating the man only for the first incorrect conviction, saying he had intended to commit an offence in the second case and choose to flee at high speed while driving dangerously. “To compensate him would tend to undermine confidence in the compensation scheme.”

Private apology given

However, a subsequent paper taken to Cabinet by Faafoi’s successor Kiri Allan shows ministers ultimately decided to compensate the man for both invalid convictions, instead reducing the amount of money he received by $7500 due to his blameworthy conduct.

While the Government could also offer a public statement of innocence and a public apology where appropriate, the man only wanted a private apology as he “just wants to get on with his life and doesn’t want any publicity or attention”.

Allan told Newsroom officials were confident the data mistake which led to the wrongful imprisonment was not a systemic problem, although the Government would look into the matter if there was any suggestion that was the case.

She also confirmed her involvement in overturning Faafoi’s original plan to provide compensation for only one of the wrongful convictions, saying the man’s flight from police may not have happened had it not been for the first incident.

“It was the principle that flowed through, you couldn’t look at the situation in isolation.”

Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler told Newsroom the final decision by Cabinet to provide compensation for both convictions was more appropriate than Faafoi’s initial proposal, saying: “Blameworthy conduct is better used to reduce the overall sum, rather than to avoid compensation entirely.”

The payment is the first to be made under new compensation guidelines developed in 2020, due to concerns about the fairness of the previous rules and inconsistency in outcomes.

The payout comes as the Government considers a separate compensation claim from Alan Hall, whose convictions for murder and intentional wounding were quashed by the Supreme Court in June.

Hall spent roughly 19 years in prison, and is reportedly set to receive more than $6 million if his claim was approved, which Stuff said would be the equivalent of every other compensation payment for wrongful conviction in the last 25 years.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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