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May 26, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Court Report: Victims’ Rights

Over the last four Salient court reports, we have observed a number of serious problems with the way our District Court operates. While I have largely focused upon the confusion awaiting defendants, Nick pointed out last week that the rights of victims may be even less respected. With the rise of the victims’ rights lobby Sensible Sentencing Trust, such issues are never far from the media spotlight, and they are not going away.

In 2002 Labour passed the Victims’ Rights Act, which reaffirmed the principles set out in the Victims of Offences Act 1987. These principles are that victims should be treated with courtesy and compassion and their dignity and privacy should be respected; furthermore, they should be given access to information, welfare, health, counselling, medical and legal services responsive to their needs. However, these principals are not legally enforceable rights, and they are not always respected in practice. In January this year the Legal Services Agency sparked outrage when it asked the widow of Karl Kuchenbecker, murdered by Graeme Burton, to repay $19,000 in legal aid costs. A week of mass publicity forced a u-turn and the family will no longer have to foot the bill, but other victim’s facing similar bills but lacking the same publicity are not so lucky. Many have to take time off work to attend court every time a parole hearing for their attacker takes place.

At the Advancing Victims’ Rights conference organised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust in April, Justice Minister Annette King announced a Legal Services Amendment Bill aimed at reducing stress to victims applying for legal aid grants to cover Coronial Inquests and Parole Board hearings. However a number of audience members walked out in disgust, pointing out that such an amendment needs to cover victims attending all forms of court, not just parole and coronial hearings. However the Bill does enable the Legal Services Agency to write off a victim’s aid debt when as soon as the aid is granted, which should prevent incidents such as the Kuchenbecker’s debt from occurring.

This January, The Dominion Post’s Emily Watt reported that the current average wait for a District Court jury trial is 283 days, and subsequently that retired judges are being used to unclog the court system. That same month, Christchurch District Court Judge Philip Moran dropped an assault case against two men just before it went to trial because it had already taken more than two years to reach the court. Judge Moran ruled that this wait was inexcusable. The right to a speedy trial – nominally guaranteed in the USA under the Sixth Amendment – is not being respected in this country, which prevents victims from being able to heal.

Another affront to victims’ rights is the way that victims of sexual assault are subjected to character-assassination attempts by defence lawyers in cross-examination. In November 2002, alleged sex attacker Jason John Cumming caused outrage by conducting his own defence and subjecting his alleged victim to a harrowing cross-examination. At the time, the jury questioned the fairness of the trial, and the Supreme Court has now ordered a retrial. The need to ensure defendants receive a fair trial can result in sex attackers walking free, as such cases are usually based upon conflicting statements rather than hard forensic evidence.

Fortunately, the need to better care for victims’ rights is acknowledged by all parts of the political spectrum. While the Greens, for example, are strongly opposed to the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s ‘tough on crime’ approach, Green MP Nandor Tanczos received some praise from the Trust for initiating a Victims’ Rights Enquiry. Conversely, the Sensible Sentencing Trust has drawn fire from many who support victims’ rights. The Trust’s spokesperson Garth McVicar says that an invitation for restorative justice advocate Kim Workman to speak at April’s Advancing Victims’ Rights conference was withdrawn after he accused the Trust of exploiting victims via the media. Tanczos has accused the Trust of having a hidden agenda to bring back capital punishment. We all agree that victims’ rights need to improve, but apparently we cannot agree on how to achieve this.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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