Professional man spends seven weeks in jail for refusing to answer questions

A man spent seven weeks in a Canterbury prison for contempt of court (file photo).

A man spent seven weeks in a Canterbury prison for contempt of court (file photo).

A professional man was held in a Christchurch jail for seven weeks without charge after refusing to answer questions as a potential witness in a criminal case.

The witness, whose exact occupation remains suppressed, was released from prison four days before Christmas but all details were totally suppressed until this week when Stuff was granted a partial lifting of the order by the High Court in Christchurch.

The witness was initially jailed on November 3 for a week by District Court judge Alastair Garland acting under a rarely used section of the Criminal Procedure Act.

People are rarely jailed by the courts for contempt of court.

People are rarely jailed by the courts for contempt of court.

The section allows the court to jail people called as witnesses for seven days if they refuse to give evidence. The man refused to testify about matters relevant to a criminal case still in its early stages.

Under the section, the seven day period can be renewed continuously if the refusals continue. When he was brought before Judge Garland at the end of each seven day period, the man repeated his refusal and was sent back to jail.

He declined an invitation to give his evidence.

In a hearing in December, Judge Garland acknowledged his discretion to end the detention but said that point had not yet been reached. He said the man's evidence was important and likely to be critical to the Crown's case against the defendant. Details of the criminal case are suppressed.

It is understood few people have served longer in jail in New Zealand under the section under which a person is not charged or sentenced.

The man told Stuff it was a very strange feeling being a free man one minute and a prisoner the next.

"It was like stepping from one world to another one. All of a sudden you have no power, no control over anything," he said.

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"You go through the processing in prison which is incredibly dehumanising and then you come to grips with this bizarre system where it's the rule of the empowered over the powerless."

Prison life was tedious but he was grateful for the friendship of other prisoners and was never bullied or intimidated.

"Most of the guys respected the stand I made. They saw it as someone who wouldn't nark."

The worst part of his jail time was getting ready to go to court every seven days.

"That was the worst psychological roller coaster. You adapt to prison life and you manage, you cope with the criminal conversations, the constant discussions about court and what you are in for and what's going to happen.

"You get used to that. The day before court my anxiety levels rise and I'm thinking about the court proceedings and I've done a certain amount of preparation on the law.

"I'm trying not to get my hopes up and you keep a bit of hope and you're thinking about what you are going to say to the judge. But you have no control over what's going to happen. You're totally disempowered and every week it's his discretion that counts."

After being released just before Christmas, he went to the supermarket and walked around for half an hour just salivating.

"When I got home I took off my shirt and rolled in the grass. Suddenly I could make decisions."

The man's lawyer tried to have him released from jail in November by filing in the High Court in Christchurch a writ of habeas corpus under which the court examines the lawfulness of the restraint. The court decided he had been lawfully detained.

Stuff appealed against the blanket suppression orders imposed by Judge Garland, arguing the judge had failed to properly balance the principle of open justice and a defendant's right to a fair trial.

Justice Cameron Mander said in a written judgement that Judge Garland's suppression orders were wider than needed to protect the fair trial rights of the defendant in the criminal case.

"I consider the District Court erred . . . by failing to take into account whether more limited, tailored orders, short of a blanket suppression, would provide adequate protection of the defendant's fair trial rights . . . the conduct of the Courts must remain open to scrutiny to ensure proper judicial standards and public confidence in the Courts is maintained. The starting point still remains open justice."

Suppression orders still cover the man's name and occupation and any details of the criminal case. The media is also prevented from publishing the reasons for the man's stance and the questions he was asked by the judge.

At his various times over the seven weeks, the man asked the court to sentence him for contempt of court under another section of the Criminal Procedure Act. This would have given him a specified term of imprisonment or a fine.

He told the court he was worried about the cost to the taxpayer of keeping him in jail and claimed the continual jailing was more "coercive than punitive so I appeal to you to sentence me and take into consideration the six weeks I have served".

He said his rights under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment had been breached, as had his rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

 - Stuff

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