Worries over 'power imbalance' in Chch attacks inquiry

8:06 am on 4 June 2019

The Islamic Women's Council is meeting with the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attacks today over the secrecy of the investigation.

Al Noor Mosque is strewn with flowers and offerings honouring the victims of the terror attack there.

Al Noor Mosque is strewn with flowers and offerings honouring the victims of the terror attack there. Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrottet

It is also worried about the lack of legal help for community groups giving evidence.

The inquiry headed by commissioners Justice Sir William Young and former diplomat Jacqui Caine started last month.

Just 10 days after the Christchurch terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a Royal Commission to look at what could or should have been done to prevent the shootings.

The high-level inquiry is investigating Brenton Tarrant and his activities before 15v March. It will also examine the role of the security agencies.

But Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women's Council is unhappy that while government agencies have the resources to pay for lawyers to help with evidence, Muslim community groups do not.

"One of the concerns we have is basically a power imbalance between a community organisation, with very little funding and volunteers, and government agencies that are well funded and have legal representation."

The council is meeting the commission today to discuss this and how much of the hearings are being held in secret.

"If we don't get to hear what's being said we can't present evidence in light of that, or say that was not correct in cases where it might not be correct.

"We would like to know how that will be managed, especially given that we also have the complication of a court case coming up and not wanting to jeopardise anything."

In mid-May, the commission released a five-page document ordering evidence and submissions made by government agencies to be kept secret.

This is to protect the accused's fair trial rights, national security and the identity of witnesses.

There will be a review of whether that information will be permanently supressed - but it's unclear when that will happen.

Barrister Jonathan Eaton QC said the public had no option but to trust the inquiry.

"We have to put trust and confidence that there's been some very experienced people put in charge of this Royal Commission to roll their sleeves up and learn if there were any issues that we can learn from, and if so to make any recommendations.

"I think we just have to have trust and confidence in the process and be patient about outcomes because of the trial that is ongoing."

The commission is due to report back to the governor general in December - at that point, the accused gunman will still be before the courts.

This will restrict what findings the commission can make public, Mr Eaton said.

"It strikes me as being a short timeframe and I think that's a recognition that there's intent to give this matter priority.

"It is undoubtedly complicated, by the fact there's no trial process going to be completed by the reporting time in December this year. In all likelihood, the findings themselves are going to have to be heavily edited and supressed, awaiting determination of the trial."

Law professor Alexander Gillespie said it was unusual to have criminal proceedings underway at the same time as a Royal Commission.

"Whenever you've got something significant that rocks a country to its core, it makes sense to have a Royal Commission to make sure that the country learns from that atrocity.

"The fact that there's a trial going on at the same time, I believe the two can be kept separate. But it's essential to the country to do this to be able to move forward and show the rest of the world this is the way to deal with an atrocity like this."

RNZ has contacted the Royal Commission for comment.

Last week it said it had held initial meetings with government agencies and members of the Muslim community.

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