Monday, February 26, 2018

Justice denied

How do we enforce human rights and privacy law in New Zealand? Generally, if you have a problem, you complain to the Human Rights Commission or Privacy Commissioner. If mediation fails and/or the problem is serious, it then goes to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT), a judicial body able to make binding rulings. And there your case will be lost in limbo, because the previous government systematically under-staffed the HRRT to prevent it from hearing cases:

People fighting for their human rights face "beyond unacceptable" waits of more than two years for justice, after politicians and officials ignored repeated pleas for a law change to help clear the backlog, documents reveal.

"Access to justice is being denied to almost all," Human Rights Review Tribunal chairman Rodger Haines said in his latest letter, to new Justice Minister Andrew Little. "For a tribunal charged with protecting human rights the situation is ironic, to say the least."

Claimant Lyn Copland – a grieving mother publicly shamed by the chief executive of the health board in whose care her son died – said the delays were disgusting, insulting and cruel and made a mockery of human rights protections.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards also labelled the delays unacceptable and said planned Privacy Act changes would further stress the struggling tribunal: "Any justice delayed is justice denied."

The core problem is that all cases must be heard by the chair, which imposes a bottleneck. Despite repeated requests for multiple co-chairs to be appointed to allow the HRRT to deal with its caseload, National appointed only one, and refused a law change to remove the bottleneck entirely. As for why, it's pretty obvious: it would have cost money, both directly in the form of salaries, and indirectly, because the HRRT is a key institution in holding the state to account for its failures, and those failures are often expensive. The family carers case, which has seen the government ordered to pay parents who care for their adult disabled children, began in the HRRT. Stopping the tribunal from doing its job effectively is cheaper for the state.

Its also obviously unjust. Which is why this needs to be fixed as quickly as possible. The new government needs to make this a priority, so we have a functioning justice system and an effective remedy for human rights breaches by the state and by others.