10 Feb 2022

Court process still putting victims' privacy at risk

4:20 pm on 10 February 2022

There is still no warning on court document request forms to inform victims their addresses could be seen by offenders.

The front page of the document 'Application for access to court documents'.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Ministry of Justice said it would fix the issue when RNZ raised it in its Is This Justice? series last year.

Courts do not allow people to take notes or record, so getting documents can be the only way to obtain information about what was said and decided in court. Victims of traumatic crimes such as murder, sexual abuse, and family violence have said having the information and judicial processes in hard copy helps them emotionally process the outcome of hearings, and ensures a record for family and therapy purposes.

But access to some documents, particularly in sensitive cases, can only be granted with a judge's approval. Victims have to fill out a form to submit their request for court documents, including personal information and detailing why it is important for them to receive files.

However, some victims and advocates told RNZ they were not aware until recently that the personal information written on the form was passed to offenders' lawyers and the offenders themselves.

This legal requirement is not mentioned on the form but can be found buried in legislation.

A victim in a sexual assault case, who preferred to remain anonymous, said it was "chilling" to think her offender read her pleas for basic information about the case, such as what was said in court - and potentially had power over what she could obtain.

Ministry acting chief operating officer Jacquelyn Shannon said it was "aware of requesters' concerns related to access to court documents" and said it was working in consultation with the judiciary to update the form.

Until then, Shannon said, the ministry "has taken immediate steps to ask court staff to inform requesters of the requirements of the access rules when applying to access court documents where there is no general right of access".

That includes advising requesters that their name and address will be shared with parties involved in the proceeding or appeal as a part of the application process, which may include the defendant(s) or offender(s).

The ministry said court staff had also been advised that only a requester's name and address information should be given to parties, and no other contact or personal information of the requester should be given to the parties.

However, the Sensible Sentencing Trust's Jess McVicar said that was "unacceptable".

Sensible Sentencing Trust victim advocate Jess McVicar

Sensible Sentencing Trust Auckland victim advocate Jess McVicar Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

She said the delay in providing a comprehensive form detailing the use of the information and where it was going was "absolutely ridiculous".

"I don't think it's best practice to rely on court staff," she said. "[It] sadly shows how out of touch the Ministry of Justice are with their own systems."

She said many people applied for documents using the online form and did not even come into contact with court staff until staff had submitted the form to the judge for consideration.

"So as soon as that form is in, it's too little, too late - and the court staff only communicate when there is information to send from judge.

"It just shows clearly that the Ministry of Justice has got no clue what goes on in the justice system, how important this is for victims and their advocates, and also there is a risk out there of having the details exposed.

"There are some very, very violent offenders out there in New Zealand who do hold a grudge against people and by exposing [a victim's] address, it's just putting them at risk."

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