Aggressive prosecution focus at MSD preceded woman's death, inquest told

Coroner Anna Tutton wants to establish what MSD knew about Wendy Shoebridge, and whether it prosecuted alleged benefit ...
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFFAX NZ

Coroner Anna Tutton wants to establish what MSD knew about Wendy Shoebridge, and whether it prosecuted alleged benefit fraud without discretion.

Monthly quotas were imposed at the Ministry of Social Development to prosecute beneficiaries, an inquest into the death of a woman accused of benefit fraud has heard.

"We had to get one prosecution per month. We had to get $30,000 of debt to be recovered per month," a former MSD investigator told the inquest into the death of Wendy Shoebridge. "Four cases had to be cleared per month."

Shoebridge, a 41-year-old mother, was found dead in Lower Hutt on April 3, 2011.

The day before, she opened a letter saying she was to be referred for prosecution over an alleged $22,000 benefit fraud. After her death, that amount fell to about $5500.

READ MORE: Mum died after opening letter threatening fraud investigation

Shoebridge was on the path to recovery after troubles including severe depression, coroner Anna Tutton heard, and the investigator did not want to prosecute her.

But he said a higher-ranking employee disagreed, and he was not well-placed to defy management. 

"My manager told me that just because [she] had threatened suicide in the past doesn't mean she will try again.

"I was given a direction. Unfortunately it was the wrong direction."

Because of existing concerns for Shoebridge, he hoped to hand-deliver the letter to her, but said this too was ruled out.

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Nick Russell, lawyer for a higher-ranking staffer, asked if the investigator was clinging to details that might "exculpate you from the blame that properly lies on your shoulders".

'ALL I WANT IS FOR THE TRUTH TO COME OUT'

Russell said he recognised the "traumatic" situation, but suggested the investigator had discretion not to prosecute Shoebridge.

"All I want is for the truth to come out. And it is now coming out," the witness said.

Discussing record-keeping at MSD systems, the former investigator also claimed he had concerns that "manipulation" of some data may have occurred with the Shoebridge file.

Russell said the investigator was nowhere near specific enough when noting possible adverse consequences if Shoebridge was prosecuted.

The investigator's lawyer, Nathan Bourke, asked if official MSD policy or management attitudes took precedence when investigators made decisions on cases such as Shoebridge's.

Management took precedence, his client responded.

Grant Burston​, counsel for the coroner, asked about MSD's prosecution guidelines and what flagging was in place in ministry systems for clients deemed at risk of suicide.

"There was no flagging of the system at all," the witness said.

But the witness understood several procedures at MSD had changed since Shoebridge was found dead.

Gordon Paine, lawyer for Shoebridge's family, said all parties found "common ground" in suggesting the letter played a role in her death.

He again criticised police inquiries into her death, saying the MSD investigator was not asked to complete a witness statement until May 2012.

The ministry has not yet given evidence, and the inquest is expected to continue into next week.

The higher-ranking staffer is expected to give evidence on Friday.

 - Stuff

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