Panel to investigate suspected miscarriages of justice
Michael October's murder and rape conviction could be the first case challenged by a high-powered team formed to investigate suspected miscarriages of justice in New Zealand.
Charitable trust The New Zealand Public Interest Project (NZPIP) will launch on June 1. Its panel will investigate potential injustices.
The conviction of Michael October, who spent 11 years in jail for the 1994 rape and murder of 22-year-old Christchurch woman Anne-Maree Ellens, is among four high-profile criminal cases in its sights. Civil proceedings of public interest, including test cases and class action, could be considered.
The voluntary board consists of sociologist and University of Canterbury (UC) lecturer Jarrod Gilbert, UC dean of law Chris Gallavin, private investigator Tim McKinnel, lawyers Nigel Hampton QC and and Kerry Cook, forensic scientist Anna Sandiford, legal expert Duncan Webb, and founder of investigation firm Zavest Glynn Rigby.
Gilbert said countries including England and Scotland had independent criminal cases review commissions that pursued potential miscarriages. While these organisations were created and funded by Acts of Parliament, successive New Zealand governments refused to establish a similar body.
"We see this as an important absence in our country's legal system, and so we decided to create one ourselves," he said.
The project was developed from the Teina Pora and October cases, where "fundamental concerns around the justice system" had been raised.
Prior to the creation of NZPIP, panel members have been privately involved in the Pora, October, Mark Lundy and David Bain cases.
October has consistently denied his involvement in the crime, despite initially offering a confession to police. There was no DNA evidence linking him to the scene. In 1996, the Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by October against his convictions.
"I don't think we should be concerned by mistakes within the justice system but we should be deeply concerned if we are not prepared to make them right," Gilbert said.
The initiative was a partnership with UC, and would act as a charitable trust, calling on the help of outside experts, he said.
Cases would be looked at by UC law school students, who would operate under the supervision of the board, working mostly on "pro bono" basis and earning course credit.
In some cases, the board could apply for legal aid but the organisation would receive no direct funding.
Gallavin said it would be "fairly small with a limited capacity" but in some instances the cases would end up in the Court of Appeal, Privy Council or up for judicial review.
He has been among a chorus of experts calling for a criminal cases reviews commission, which he said could save taxpayer dollars and uphold the reputation of the legal system.
Former Justice Minister Judith Collins last year rejected calls for a review panel, saying the criminal justice system has "robust safeguards against miscarriages of justice through the appeals process and the royal prerogative of mercy".
Gilbert said people needed a vehicle to reach that point, while many did not have the ability or financial means to pursue miscarriages.
People who felt they have fallen victim to a miscarriage of justice would have forms available to them to fill out and make a referral to the body.
From there, the board would decide on the merit of a case and if it is in the public interest, then decide if it has "got legs", and finally if they had the capacity to carry out the investigation.