8 Jun 2024

Behind Boy in the Water

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 June 2024

The award winning Boy in the Water podcast came from one father's anguish over his son's death. It's the sort of approach these journalists get every day

Lawyer Simon Mount KC at the Invercargill courthouse during the coronial inquest into Lachie Jones death, on 2 May, 2024.

Lawyer Simon Mount KC at the Invercargill courthouse during the coronial inquest into Lachie Jones death, on 2 May, 2024. Photo: Stuff / Robyn Edie

Investigative journalist Melanie Reid is approached most days by someone asking for help on a case of bad justice because they can't afford a lawyer.

"There's a whole lot of people who come to us who don't go to lawyers and I think it's because justice is not accessible to New Zealanders anymore," she says.

"Something needs to happen about this because you can only get legal aid in this country if you're essentially unemployed or have a very low income. Any person on a middle range income can't afford, or has no access to, the legal system because they can't afford lawyers."

It means that anyone fighting for ACC, or who has been wrongfully dismissed at work but not in a union, or falsely accused, does "not have a shit show in hell of getting anywhere".

"That's why they come to us," Reid says.

But the dwindling number of journalists means that most will never see justice done.

Reid and her Newsroom Investigates colleague Bonnie Sumner have just completed 23 episodes of season two of the award-winning Boy in the Water podcast, covering the inquest into the death of Lachlan Jones.

The little boy's lifeless body was found face up in Gore's sewage oxidation pond in January 2019. The police said he had run away from his home, climbed a fence to the ponds, fallen in and drowned. There were no suspicious circumstances, police said, and the case was closed.

Reid and Sumner started digging into it after being approached by Lachie's father Paul Jones and after several years of investigating uncovered what Reid calls layers of institutional failings.

The coroner called for an inquest, which was held in Invercargill last month.

From their BnB in the southern city Reid and Sumner pulled together daily updates from the inquest, with the help of a small team in Dunedin and Auckland.

After years of trying to unravel what happened to little Lachie they reckon they know more than anyone about the case. But what took place in courtroom 4 over more than three weeks was full of surprises, they say.

They joke about the fan club of Kings Counsel, Simon Mount, with his "intelligent, clear, gentle" questioning of witnesses.

"He's almost like a spider catching a fly, he weaves around and around and around and gets tighter and tighter until they choke," says Reid.

They were also surprised at the way the police blamed each other for failings over the two investigations, and that many of the witnesses had private meetings with the police at the courthouse before they gave evidence.

"There were some interesting turns of phrase that popped up between witnesses a number of times," says Sumner. 

They're working on their next investigation but Reid says there are many other cases where nothing will happen.

"If you are, say for example, Paul Jones (Lachlan's father) and you think that there's something untoward about the death of your son how do you get from a police investigation being closed to a coroner's inquest. Well you come to us," says Reid.

Both Reid and Sumner say they are not confident that the coroner will reaching a clear finding on what happened to Lachlan.

"We'll see what the second phase brings," says Sumner, referring to the next stage of the inquest in August when a number of experts will be called to give evidence. "I know that they're calling a child psychologist, I'm also hoping they might call the duty coroners."

Reid explains that one of the big problems with the case is that there was no forensic pathology carried out.

"Therefore you can't define one way or the other what happened, and so that's been the biggest failing and why I say with such confidence it was a debacle of a police investigation.

They would welcome a clear finding, she says, but their other motivation in bringing the case to light was to show "institutional failure all around it".

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