It's not much. Just two gold coins. Enough to buy a Sunday paper. Not quite enough for a takeaway cup of coffee. But for unemployed Dunedin man Gordon Holmes, $3 is an awful lot of money.
Holmes needs a magnifying glass to read, has no phone or email, and lives in a one-bedroom flat in one of Dunedin's poorest suburbs. But he knows what he's entitled to and when he noticed he was temporarily out of pocket to the tune of $3.73, he wrote to Work and Income NZ requesting personal information in order to determine what had happened to his payments.
That request, and others, under the Privacy Act, sparked a two-year battle which ended last month with the Human Rights Tribunal ruled Holmes had suffered substantial humiliation, loss of dignity, and injury to feelings. It ordered Winz to pay a total of $17,000 in damages.
The tribunal ordered Winz to undertake a thorough review of the way it deals with Privacy Act requests from its clients to ensure full compliance in future.
It voiced ''real concerns'' about the way Dunedin branches complied with the Privacy Act, saying breaches by the agency were not isolated and had been “sustained and systemic”.
The agency's clients were vulnerable and could not be expected to have legal expertise and knowledge of accounting processes, the decision said.
“By definition, most clients will be in poor financial circumstances. A significant number will be lacking in higher education.
"Most will need assistance navigating policy relating to welfare payments. They will also likely be under stress."
The tribunal, while describing Holmes as eccentric, noted he was an "honest and upright individual who has a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong". Winz described him as an "enigma".
“I'm just a normal person really, trying to get some kind of justice," Holmes told the Sunday Star-Times.
"I don't know why you have these laws if you can't follow through. And the fear of costs being awarded is why people don't go there."
Holmes decided to go it alone, without a lawyer, because he thought he had a strong case.
“I didn't give up. You just can't. That is the problem in this country.
"People just give up. They don't fight anything. They don't try.”
The saga started in August 2010 when Holmes wrote to Winz wanting to know why a $3.73 benefit increase (known as the annual general adjustment) was not paid until May 19 when it should have been paid on April 15.
Winz misunderstood his request and did not bother to seek clarification, a statutory requirement under the Privacy Act. The agency took almost a year to fully respond. Under its own rules it is supposed to respond within 20 working days or seek a formal extension.
Holmes made another request in October 2010, for information about his previous application for a benefit supplement, known as temporary additional support, because he needed money for an eye test to renew his driver's licence. Because of the way the application had been handled, the agency concluded Holmes had not made the application, and failed to provide the information. Instead it told him to reapply for the supplement. A year passed before the information was eventually provided.
The Human Rights Tribunal criticised the way Winz dealt with Holmes, saying its handlings of his requests had breached the Privacy Act, and forced “an impoverished beneficiary” with poor eyesight and lack of phone or email to seek redress. The tribunal reminded Winz its staff should be "understanding and caring about the needs of those they serve" and hoped to see an improvement in the relationship with Holmes.
Through Crown Law, Winz is fighting the decision and the case will be heard in the Dunedin High Court on Wednesday.
“We disagree strongly with a number of elements of the decision. We are appealing to the High Court against some of the conclusions the tribunal has reached in deciding the Ministry [of Social Development] failed to comply with the Privacy Act, and most of the orders made by the tribunal," chief executive Debbie Power said. “In particular we are appealing the order that we review our processes.”
Holmes now believes he won't see the cash awarded him and was “very annoyed” to get the appeal papers this past week.
- © Fairfax NZ News