The New Zealand Herald

‘Access to justice denied’ as tribunal faces huge backlog

- David Fisher investigat­ions

The tribunal dedicated to protecting the human rights of New Zealanders is in danger of “collapsing” under a huge backlog over which the previous Government was repeatedly warned.

Documents obtained by the Herald reveal the Human Rights Review Tribunal even stopped scheduling hearings late last year because it was so behind writing up decisions for cases that had already been heard — some as many as three years earlier.

Chairman Roger Haines, QC, told the incoming Government it was “ironic to say the least” that the body charged with protecting human rights was now depriving people of those rights through huge delays.

The tribunal is charged with hearing claims relating to discrimina­tion, sexual and racial harassment, privacy breaches and health and disability rights. It is able to issue findings and award financial penalties.

In a letter about the tribunal to Minister of Justice Andrew Little in November, Haines called it a “crisis” which would worsen the longer it wasn’t fixed.

“The overall delays will become even more egregious.

“As one who, since at least 2015, has endeavoure­d to have the problem remedied, I find the present situation unconscion­able,” he wrote.

“The delays in the tribunal are reaching the point where the system is in danger of falling into disrepute if not collapsing.”

The letter is in documents released through the Official Informatio­n Act showing concerns were raised since 2015 over rising claim numbers.

The tribunal went from 36 cases in 2012-13 to 127 four years later. Officials told ministers they were unsure why there was such an increase but that it could be due to a greater public understand­ing of rights.

Haines said the tribunal struggled to deal with the rise because the law required the chair to hear all cases.

“The entire load of the tribunal has been carried by one person, being myself as the current chairperso­n.”

Haines said former Associate Justice Minister Mark Mitchell arranged the temporary appointmen­t of a parttime co-chairperso­n but it would take “five fulltime decision-makers five years to eliminate the backlog while keeping up with current cases”.

It meant those who had filed cases waiting 16 to 19 months for the first case management conference — the first step in getting to a hearing — and 22 to 28 months for an actual hearing.

“Access to justice is being denied to almost all.

“For a tribunal charged with protecting human rights the situation is ironic, to say the least.”

He said the proposed “tribunals bill” before Parliament “was wholly misconceiv­ed” and instead of solving the problem could make it worse.

Haines said the solution was a single change to the Human Rights Act to allow the tribunal’s deputy chairs to hear cases themselves.

A briefing from the Ministry of Justice to Little and Associate Justice Minister Aupito William Sio — who has responsibi­lity for tribunals — said it would take two chairperso­ns four years to clear the current backlog without any new cases coming in.

The delays were not only with getting hearing dates but receiving decisions with officials estimating claimants were waiting up to three years to get verdicts.

The OIA material shows the issue was raised with Mitchell last year and his predecesso­r Amy Adams in 2016.

Adams — now National’s finance spokeswoma­n — said yesterday that changes had been made at the time in line with advice from officials on the best way to fix the problems facing the tribunal.

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