The Criminal Review Board has not completed a single investigation after 20 months of work

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The Criminal Case Review Commission received 282 applications from detainees. Image bank /123RF

A government-appointed commission to investigate miscarriages of justice has been inundated with requests – but has yet to complete a single inquiry after more than 20 months of work.

The Criminal Cases Review Board was set up in 2020 after then-Justice Minister Andrew Little acknowledged that mistakes do happen and that there needed to be a way for inmates, who felt having been wronged, to pursue their case after all other avenues have failed.

Since its launch, the Commission has received 282 inquiries from people claiming to have been convicted or wrongly convicted, an average of 14 per month.

However, despite a budget of nearly $16 million over four years and 16 staff, only 12 cases have reached the stage of a full investigation – and none of them are yet complete.

Commission Chairman Colin Carruthers QC said only two or three of the 12 full inquiries could be completed this calendar year.

Colin Carruthers QC is the Chief Commissioner of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.  Photo / supplied
Colin Carruthers QC is the Chief Commissioner of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Photo / supplied

It’s a turnover rate that criminal justice expert Jarrod Gilbert says is far from an idea, while National’s spokesperson said the delays potentially prevent justice from being served.

Gilbert said it would take the New Zealand commission some time to find its feet, but it would potentially not fulfill its function if delays in dealing with cases through the inquiry process were to continue .

“They’re going to have so many cases coming out of the woodwork early on,” Gilbert said.

“You would expect these internal processes to improve over time. But I’m sure even the commission itself would suggest that these current turnover rates aren’t great.”

The fictitious National Party attorney general and spokesman for the courts, Chris Penk, said the commission appeared to be compounding the mistakes of the justice system in general.

“We are going to follow exactly the same path with the Criminal Cases Review Commission as with all levels of the justice and judicial system, which represents huge backlogs, huge delays and a lack of access to justice” , did he declare.

“And, as the famous saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied,” Penk said.

The New Zealand Commission was set up to review convictions or sentences which have exhausted all legal remedies in court, but where a miscarriage of justice could still have occurred.

When he sponsored his legislation in parliament in 2019, Little said no justice system is perfect, and sometimes “does things spectacularly wrong”.

One of the under-cited examples is that of Teina Pora, who spent 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett, when he was 17.

Until 2020, people who had exhausted legal remedies in court could seek redress through what was known as the Governor-General’s “Royal Prerogative of Pardon”. It was not used often.

In 2003-2004, a study by the late Sir Thomas Thorp calculated that there could be around 20 wrongfully convicted people in New Zealand prisons and recommended a commission of the type that was eventually set up 16 years later.

In the first month the commission began its work, in July 2020, it received four times the number of applications it expected.

After six months, applications had reached 125, the number expected in the first 12 months and on which its $4 million annual budget was based.

The applications kept pouring in. At the end of the first year, in June 2021, there were 221 applications. At the end of February 2022, last figures available, she had received 282.

Teina Pora spent 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Susan Burdett in 1992. Photo/File
Teina Pora spent 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Susan Burdett in 1992. Photo/File

The commission aimed for cases to be created for 80% of cases within six weeks of acceptance and for initial investigations to be completed on 80% of those cases six weeks later. This was before the cases were even fully investigated.

Its actual levels of compliance with these targets were zero when the commission’s annual report was published in the middle of last year.

This report says that in response to high demand, the commission has been forced to adapt the way it operates, implementing a new triage system to streamline its processes.

In the words of Carruthers: “(Demand) is higher than we expected, but we have adapted our processes and procedures to deal with it.”

When asked if the commission would seek more money from the government to increase its capacity, Carruthers said it had just completed a basic review of funding.

“We are looking at this issue now,” he said.

Penk said the interest of the commission was that it was meant to be an easier route and a lower bar to the royal prerogative of mercy for people who wanted their cases reconsidered.

“It’s hard to see how he succeeds on his terms given this lack of resources,” he said.

“I don’t see any solution other than more resources. But it was inevitable that it would still require a lot of resources,” Penk said.

Asked if that meant a national government would consider increasing funding for the commission beyond the $16 million allocated over four years, Penk replied, “I think we should. I think we should take seriously any suggestion that more funding could improve outcomes, including on timelines.”

He added that National should also consider whether the commission’s stated goals were realistic in the first place or too ambitious.

“In fact, there is a scenario where the current level of funding remains as it is, but we take a closer look at what such a body could achieve,” Penk said.

Forty-seven requests received by the commission concerned convictions for murder or manslaughter. But 129 cases, or 46%, involved people convicted of sex offenses – 70 against adults and 59 against minors.

This seems disproportionately higher than one would expect, given that sexual offenses represent only 1% of convictions and those who commit them represent 23% of the prison population.

“We’re very mindful of this disparity in stats,” Carruthers said.

“We haven’t really discovered the specific reasons,” he said.

“I guess, without any scientific basis for it, it’s probably a reflection of the denial mentality that we see again and again with sexual offending.”

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