New Zealand Law Society - Justice for Blessie ‘crowdfunding’ campaign raises money and some concerns

Justice for Blessie ‘crowdfunding’ campaign raises money and some concerns

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The family of murdered Auckland woman Blessie Gotingco has raised more than $140,000 in under a week, by asking the public to help them potentially sue the Department of Corrections.

The "Justice for Blessie" 'Givealittle' page features an open letter to New Zealanders by Blessie's husband Antonio Gotingco, urging Kiwis to help hold Corrections accountable for the "ineptitude" and "stupidity" that he says led to his beloved wife's death.

It's in the best interest of all of us, he says, to ensure that the public is protected from criminals."Let's fix public safety in NZ," he says.

The Department of Corrections was earlier this month cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to its management of Tony Robertson, the man now serving a life sentence for assaulting and murdering Mrs Gotingco.

But Mr Gotingco claims Corrections was negligent, that it never properly monitored his wife's killer after releasing him from prison five months earlier (he'd been locked up for abducting and indecently assaulting a child) and it was inevitable he would commit a heinous crime.

However, funding any legal action would be "tough" Mr Gotingco says, and "the biggest challenge of our life". He's appealing to the New Zealand public, hoping to raise enough money to mount a "true investigation into the mis-management of Tony Robertson".

"Together let us show them power to the people," Mr Gotingco pleads. "We ALL deserve better."

The campaign closes at the end of the month.

The case highlights the need to consider how legal investigations and legal fees will be funded in the future, particularly as legal aid budgets continue to face increasing pressure internationally.

While crowdfunding has potential to improve access to justice for those who can't otherwise afford to mount legal challenges, particularly against powerful institutions like government, the fund raising platform also raises potential concerns.

The killing of Blessie Gotingco and the "Justice for Blessie" campaign is one of those rare (and in this case tragic) stories that is both in the, and of, public interest.

That is, people are interested in the story itself and its wider implications.

One imagines most empathise strongly with Blessie and the Gotingcos, and feel anger towards her killer, which manifests against Corrections (without due consideration of whether the Department had in fact been negligent).

The public, as shown by their outpouring of both emotional and financial support, are also interested in the broader issue on which Mr Gotingco's campaign is leveraged – the individual's entitlement to safety in the community vs. the rights of violent offenders to rehabilitation and release.

If crowdfunding legal fees becomes more commonplace, one wonders whether less-meritorious (in the public's perception) will receive as much support as "Justice for Blessie" has. Many claimants' claims for justice feature less sensational and empathy-emoting, purse-rattling facts.

Asking the public for help to raise money isn't necessarily a new idea, although online platforms have helped the trend take off around the world in recent years.

There are 18 crowdfunding websites in New Zealand alone.

The whole country probably heard of crowdfunding during the successful 'Givealittle' campaign that raised enough public money (more than $2 million from nearly 40,000 donors) to privately purchase a multi-million beachfront lot in the Abel Tasman last year.

And well before the likes of 'Givealittle' and 'Kickstarter', a somewhat-precedential 1980s New Zealand privacy law case, Tucker (Tucker v News Media Ownership Ltd [1986] NZHC 216), involved an attempt to raise money from the public for a life-saving heart transplant operation. After gaining significant media attention and widespread support, Tucker's fundraising hopes fell apart when it was revealed by media – despite an interim injunction sought to prevent publication – that he had previously been convicted for crimes against children.

Tucker case demonstrates at least one other potential pitfall of crowdsourced fundraising campaigns – you never really know (to the level of certainty and transparency that professional fund raisers or retailers are held to) who's getting your money, or what exactly it will be used for.

While Mr Gotingco's crowdfunding effort appears entirely genuine, and has gained credibility from widespread mainstream media coverage, future public fundraisers for legal investigations and fees might be less transparent.

While not covering charitable or donation-seeking campaigns like the Gotingco's, the Financial Markets Authority website provides information about "equity" crowdfunding – where companies raise money by selling shares to members of the public – and lists New Zealand's licenced crowdfunding services.

"A licence to provide crowd funding services is for businesses who want to act as an intermediary between companies making offers of shares and investors – by providing the facility through which offers can be made to investors," the FMA website states.

Mr Gotingco's proposed negligence claim itself not dissimilar to the well-known Couch v AG jurisprudence in New Zealand, where the appellant, Ms Couch, has been seriously injured by a parolee (others victims were killed in the same incident). She claimed that Corrections had been negligent in the way it administered her attacker's parole conditions, and that this negligence caused her injuries.

However, the Gotingco claim would be one step removed from the facts of Couch – where the injured Ms Couch herself was the claimant – as as it's the victim's family alleging that a duty of care has been breached.

Voicing support for the "Justice for Blessie" campaign, Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar says those responsible for monitoring parolees have "immunised" themselves from liability, treating public safety as a "distant and detached consideration" when rehabilitating violent offenders.