The number of people bringing claims against the Corrections Department has doubled over the past five years.
According to the department’s annual reports as at June 2017 it was defending 30 active claims, at June 2018 it was 37 and at June 2019 it was 30.
However, as at June 2023 they were defending 67 claims. That’s excluding 19 employer and contractor claims that are also active.
It has accounted for $7.6 million for the claims, $6.3m of which relate to the claims brought by offenders.
That’s compared with other years where far less was noted (2018 $1.2m; 2019 $952,000; 2020 $938,000; 2021 $2.4m).
“Filed mostly by prisoners, the proceedings included applications for Judicial Review and claims for breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and sought compensation or other redress for perceived/alleged instances of wrongful action or decision-making by Corrections and individuals,” the report said.
The amount is the maximum amount Corrections could be liable for, and has been noted as a contingent liability for accounting purposes.
Corrections Finance Planning and Assurance deputy chief executive Alice Sciascia said it was not funding that had been “held back”.
“From the end of the 2021/22 financial year, we adjusted our valuation methodology for contingent liabilities in accordance with feedback from Audit New Zealand. We previously calculated the value as a likely or expected liability – we now calculate it as a maximum possible liability.
“This means that the current claim amounts you are referring to are the maximum liability assessed by Crown Solicitors, even if the claimant’s chances of success are low.”
However, that only partly explains that massive increase in contingent liabilities – the other aspect being there are far more people bringing claims than before.
JustSpeak executive director Aphiphany Forward-Taua said the reason there were more claims was that things were getting worse, and that people in prison were more aware of their rights.
“There are a number of human rights violations that are taking place across our prison network. Issues around access to health, issues around access to lawyers, around the use of tactical tools, in particular, the use of pepper spray, the use of separation, isolation and also restraint.”
She said that those violations were happening before Covid-19 and the well-documented staffing shortage problems, but those factors had made things worse.
“The deprivation of a person’s liberties is the punishment. Everything over and above that is unlawful, frankly, and a breach or a violation of human rights.
“And there is an awareness amongst our people in prison community, where they understand a lot of their experiences, which at the time they probably aren’t aware of it, but coming out of prison, they recognise, ‘oh, I didn’t realise that was a human rights violation’ and they experienced them on a daily basis.
“So now that awareness and the education in the public domain is empowering them to actually say, ‘no, this isn’t good enough’.”
Earlier this year, the Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, released a blistering report criticising Corrections’ leadership for failing to make any meaningful changes to the way prisoners were treated.
The catalyst for the investigation was the riots at Waikeria Prison two years ago.
“Waikeria was one of many prisons I had inspected over a number of years where despite countless recommendations for change by both me and other oversight agencies, the same issues kept coming up, again and again.
“Those issues included unreasonable lock-up hours, a lack of privacy in toilet and shower areas, and in the case of Waikeria, decrepit conditions in its high-security areas. The Department accepted most of the recommendations yet the riots occurred,” Boshier said when the report, Kia Whaitake Making a Difference, was released.
“In my view, all of the issues I’ve outlined are shortcomings that Corrections’ senior leadership could have addressed but has not. I accept the Department is attempting to overhaul its approach but progress has been too slow and the fair treatment and rights of prisoners have, unfortunately, been the collateral damage.”
“I was also surprised to find during my investigation that prisoners’ rights were not at the heart of decisions made at every level of the organisation.”