State being sued for Long Delays re the Release of Personal Files to Historic Abuse Claimants

Story Source: Alex Ashton, Radio New Zealand, 8/12/15

74 historic abuse claimants are suing the government for $740,000 for what they say is a failure to act when they asked for their personal records.

The group of 74 people needed the documents in order to file compensation claims for the abuse.

But the claimants say the Ministry of Social Development treated them with contempt, taking up to 16 months to hand over the information.

Cooper Legal, representing the claimants, lodged a lawsuit with the Human Rights Review Tribunal in April.

Senior solicitor Amanda Hill said under the Privacy Act personal information used to support a claimant’s case for compensation must be released without “undue delay”. It took from seven to 16 months to get the records, without which the legal team could not proceed with the claims, and some clients died during that time.

Ms Hill said the Privacy Commissioner had already deemed the delays a breach of the rights of her clients, for whom the indefinite wait was distressing.

“They get stuck, basically, in a system where they’ve come to us and talked about their history of abuse, and often had to deal with really traumatic events that they’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget, and then they kind of have to sit and wait in a vortex.

“The delays have created their own sort of stress, and our clients often don’t have good health, so we’ve had clients who have died while they’ve waited for their records.”

Secondary abuse

Each of the 74 clients was seeking $10,000, to be paid on top of any compensation received for the abuse itself.

“For many of our clients it feels like a secondary type of abuse, where the same organisation that abused them as children is now treating this request for records with a degree of contempt.”

Ms Hill said Cooper Legal had told the ministry many times that the delays were unacceptable, and it vowed to improve.

“MSD often responds with ‘we’re trying to hire more staff members, we’re changing our resourcing’, but nothing ever seems to change,” she said.

“We’ve been talking about delays for over a decade.”

Ms Hill said her firm had 99 other outstanding requests for records, some made almost a year ago.

She hoped they would not need to take further legal action about those requests, and that the current case would sort out the delays.

“I would hope that MSD would make a real effort to fix this, because ongoing litigation is not going to help anyone.”

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