A new independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice has launched and is expecting 40 to 50 cases in the coming months.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, headed by chief commissioner Colin Carruthers QC, got underway in Hamilton on Wednesday marking a “milestone moment” for the country’s justice system, Justice Minister Andrew Little said.
It will act outside the judiciary to investigate and review people’s sentences and convictions where there is a claim of a miscarriage of justice, and can then refer cases back for the courts to determine guilt or innocence.
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Little said the CCRC, or Te Kāhui Tātari Ture, will act as a “safety valve” against wrongful convictions.
It has already fielded enquiries about applications and is expecting an initial 40 to 50 cases.
“Even though we have appeal rights and safeguards against unsafe convictions, from time to time our justice system does get things wrong.”
Previously anyone who believes they suffered a miscarriage of justice could apply to the Governor-General, who seeks advice from the Justice Minister for exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy that can be used to grant a free pardon or to refer a conviction or sentence back to an appeal court.
Little said the current process was “idiosyncratic” when it came to allocating resources and not widely understood, or used by the Maori population, which was overrepresented in the prison population.
It also took anywhere from months to years to resolve a claim. The CCRC will help to expedite potential cases.
“We can be much more systematic and timely.”
Hamilton was chosen to house the commission – a commitment of the 2017 Labour-NZ First coalition – as the city is outside the main centres of bureaucratic and judicial headquarters in Auckland and Wellington, and home to a law school at Waikato University.
Two 150-hour paid internships will be on offer through Waikato University’s law school.
“It’s very important for people applying to have faith in the process and trust it. Keeping it physically separate from those big centres helps keep people’s trust in the system.”
Carruthers will lead the board made up of Deputy Chief Commissioner Paula Rose QSO, Kingi Snelgar, Tangi Utikere JP, Nigel Hampton QC, Professor Tracey McIntosh and Dr Virginia Hope MNZM.
It has a budget of just under $16million over four years.
“We have different skill base, and a significant staff and a budget that will enable the commission to do the work. It’s quite a different process,” Carruthers said.
Carruthers said the commission was more accessible to people and has powers to obtain evidence and documents for review and refer cases back to courts.
“If there are issues or events that continue to occur, then we have a power to investigate those and report to the minister.”
An outreach programme will run in prisons where prisoners can ring a confidential 0800 number from the prison yard to gain advice.
He earlier said there were undoubtly “a significant number” of people in prison who shouldn’t have been convicted.
Hamilton lawyer Roger Laybourn said the commission was an “enlightened and courageous” move. It bought enhanced potential to undo human tragedy.
“There should be no such thing as acceptable, collateral damage in the justice system. There cannot be a more egregious outcome than having an innocent person in jail.”