Stressed probation staffer gets justice
A 16-year battle against the Corrections Department has ended with victory for a "stubborn bastard" former employee.
Former probation officer Christopher John Gilbert of Papatoetoe sued Corrections for nearly $1 million after it forced him to retire on medical grounds in 1996.
The pressure of his job had been so intense and prolonged that he developed exhaustion and coronary artery disease.
Gilbert, who was 51 when he finished work, had major heart surgery and in August 1998 was assessed as 90 per cent disabled.
The Employment Court agreed he was overloaded with work over the course of his 21-year career, which involved dealing with hundreds of violent criminals and sexual offenders, and that he was entitled to compensation. He was awarded 14 years' salary, as well as payments for humiliation, distress, medical expenses and legal costs, setting a precedent for a stress compensation ruling.
The Crown launched a series of appeals, taking the case all the way to the Court of Appeal. But once Gilbert embarked on his fight, he did not give an inch.
"They pursued a strategy of attrition, and unfortunately for them, that didn't succeed. I'm a stubborn bastard," Gilbert said. "I wasn't going to let them get away with it."
He was originally told his case might last a couple of years and cost as much as $20,000. Sixteen years later, he's just glad it's finally over.
"It's more of a relief than anything. It seems so far back that it's a blur. You lose a sense of time, there's this waiting for judgements that might take months or even years to come through."
The many hearings over the years led to more stress, but Gilbert said it provided lessons in letting go. "Aspects of it were extremely frustrating, but you have to follow the plan of going with the flow."
Gilbert eventually turned the tables and went back to the Employment Court seeking costs. A few weeks ago the decision came out in his favour, and he was awarded another $70,000, most of which he says will end up in lawyers' pockets.
And he said it wasn't as if he received the huge windfall everyone thought he had after the initial ruling. More than a third of the $900,000 went on legal fees, and taxes claimed another big chunk.
It had never been about the money, though. "Corrections didn't like the idea of taking responsibility for its actions with regards to staff," Gilbert said. "But there's much greater awareness of stress now."
Now in his 60s, Gilbert remains cagey about his health, but has one firm plan for the future - not to see the inside of any more courtrooms.
Gilbert said he took on the battle for one reason - justice. So was it served?
"An approximation of it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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