Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Human rights and hurt feelings

There's been a lot of moral outrage over the case of Andrew MacMillan, a convicted murderer who was awarded $1200 in damages by the Human Rights Review Tribunal after he was denied access to a letter of complaint written about him to the prison. The outrage is driven both by the Tribunal's reason for awarding damages - "injury to his feelings, loss of dignity and humiliation" - and the feeling that MacMillan is a scumbag who doesn't deserve the money, but unfortunately it misses the point. This is more than just a matter of "hurt feelings".

The letter of complaint did not just go into a file somewhere to be ignred. It was used against MacMillan. He was told about it by prison officers, with the implication that it would affect his treatment. It was given to the parole board, where it could play a part in their decisions. It was not just a letter, it was evidence.

The letter was used as evidence by the parole board and it was used as evidence within the prison. In both cases, MacMillan was denied the right to view and challenge it. That violates accepted rules of judicial procedure, the Privacy Act, and ordinary standards of fairness and decency - all of which still apply to convicted murderers. Denying MacMillan the right to view and correct information held about him - to put his side of the story - is a very real harm, especially in a context where the information seemed to be known by everybody but him, and where people who had power over his life could act on it.

Those outraged about this are missing a very important point. If we want the right to be able to challenge evidence against us, or to tell our side of the story to government departments, banks and credit agencies, then we must extend this right to everyone. Even Andrew MacMillan.