Monday, June 15, 2009

An idea whose time has come

Writing in the Herald this morning, senior lawyer Nigel Hampton makes the case for a permanent Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate miscarriages of justice. In the wake of the Bain verdict - and the fifteen year, multimillion dollar process which ultimately led to his acquittal - it seems like a damn good idea. According to a report by former High Court Judge Thomas Thorp there could be as many as twenty innocent people rotting in our prisons, the victims of miscarriages of justice. And because of the way our court system works - appeals are narrow questions on points of law, not general reviews of a case - our justice system is at present utterly incapable of correcting these errors. Bain - freed after thirteen years of wrongful imprisonment - was the exception that proved the rule.

Hampton points to the UK's Criminal Cases Review Commission as a model we should adopt:

The commission was given wide-ranging powers to make the fullest of factual inquiries because it was believed that the British criminal appellate system was too constrained and narrow and therefore not an appropriate instrument, or indeed available instrument, to use to try to perceive let alone rectify miscarriages.

In the 10 years or so since its inception the commission has overturned, or taken steps leading to the overturning of, more than 200 wrongful convictions. And with results being achieved in a relatively short time frame. No more extended marathons like the Bain saga has been here - a decade and a half ...

Scotland also has such a commission, and given the similarity in population size and legal system, it gives a rough estimate of costs for a New Zealand version of around $3.5 million a year - less than the cost of the Bain retrial. For less than the cost of a single retrial, we'd get a comprehensive review system which could investigate over a hundred cases a year. This is ridiculously cheap, but has tremendous payoffs for justice.

This is an idea whose time has come, and we should implement it immediately in New Zealand. And if the government doesn't want to do it, then someone should dig up Richard Worth's old private member's bill and shame them into action.