3 Nov 2020

Analysis: 'Strikingly low' pay-outs for victims of state abuse

4:06 pm on 3 November 2020

By David Cohen *

Analysis - What a difference a Royal Commission makes - and what a difference this inquiry into historical abuse continues to reveal about the differences between the representatives of the abused and those they represent.

Royal Commission Abuse in Care inquiry.

File photo Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

The first of two public hearings on redress finishes tomorrow in Auckland after a fortnight of submissions from government agencies who have dealt with civil claims made against the state by former wards.

Earlier, Judge Coral Shaw and her four commissioners heard two weeks of testimony from former wards and their advocates about their experiences dealing with the likes of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), the Human Rights Tribunal and the courts.

A deaf man with high-functioning autism, who claims he was beaten by his teacher and later misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and medicated, shared his story of the "unbearable stress" in seeking recognition and relief from the state.

Elsewhere, a woman who was repeatedly subjected to electroconvulsive therapy for her sexuality says her struggle for redress was almost as bad as the abuse itself.

Also of particular interest on the ECT front (because this writer has previously covered his story in depth) was Tyrone Marks, a 60-year-old who has divided much of his time over recent decades between working as a counsellor in Hamilton and fighting the Crown over not only redress but having the facts of his particular case recognised.

Marks, one of the many who was initially taken out of his Italian-Māori home on account of the large family size (14 kids). He ended up at Lake Alice, a rural psychiatric hospital near Whanganui. There he was subjected thrice-weekly to the electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, which the institution used as both a therapeutic technique and a form of punishment.

Tyrone Marks is a survivor of abuse who went through several state institutions.

Tyrone Marks is a survivor of abuse who went through several state institutions. Photo: Aaron Smale / @ikon_media

As ECT was typically administered, a boy was usually first given a biscuit and a cup of tea mixed with a drug to stop drooling, before electrodes were strapped on to his head with bandages that had been dipped in salt water in order to avoid leaving burn marks, before the shocks were administered without anaesthetic.

These latest hearings were not about examining the pros and cons of particular claims or attempting to hammer out disputed factual issues related to them. The accumulating evidence from such testimonies will help, though, in preparing both the interim report expected next month and the final document.

In terms of its brief, the commission defines the term redress as concrete actions that "set right, remedy or provide reparations for harms or injuries caused by a wrong, such as abuse".

Redress takes many forms, it notes, including apologies and monetary compensation.

The process is important. In terms of natural justice, obviously, but also for allowing onlookers a better understanding of the actual people involved.

On the one hand, whether representatives of government agencies, top-flight lawyers or PBRF stars from the universities - almost without exception, these are professionals on six-figure salaries whose upward career trend has been significantly enhanced through their diligent work.

The same cannot always be said of many of the former wards attempting to navigate their way through various official labyrinths.

As MSD deputy chief executive for policy Simon MacPherson explained, what those on the other side most share in common is "low income, health or mental health difficulties", along with miserable prospects of finding or retaining work - any work, in most cases - or simply staying out of jail.

Nor has their position been significantly enhanced by much of the jockeying to date. Most of their cases are yet to be resolved, and what closure there has been has usually involved strikingly low pay-outs, usually no more than $30,000 and typically far less than that figure.

As a point of comparison, redress amounts for claimants in the Republic of Ireland, which maintained a comparable residential system across its 26 counties for many decades, have tended to receive in the vicinity of $110,000 - a figure which itself has been criticised as being too low.

Where has all the rest of this public money been going? As MSD admitted, 60 percent of the $77m it has spent to date has not gone settling historic cases but instead being soaked up in legal aid bills, external legal fees and operational costs.

With more than $100m also set aside for abuse claims over the coming three years, the expectation might have been for more of the same for the foreseeable future: claims from the dispossessed, counterclaims from the relevant agencies, and, always, carefully detailed invoices and time-sheets from those with a professional stake.

This is something the current phase of the inquiry, which later this month will begin scrutinising faith-based institutions, could yet put paid to. Next month's report will probably recommend some significant changes.

And what might the main suggestions be? If the Australian and Irish situations are anything to go by, these might include the removal of limitation periods, lessening the onus of proof (which as we have now seen can be hellishly difficult after lengthy periods), and permitting some of the earlier, more paltry settlements and judgements to be revisited.

Not to mention capping some of those eye-watering costs involved in keeping the relevant consultants in the style to which they have become rather accustomed.

* David Cohen is a Wellington-based journalist and author of Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys' Home. He is supplying regular analyses of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission for RNZ.

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