The results of four recently-completed Law Foundation projects are attracting public interest and generating debate among experts in their respective fields. The diverse studies cover family group conferences, coroners’ findings, intellectual disability and post-sentence detention. Each has involved substantial research and ground-breaking conclusions with potential for positive change.
Family Group Conferences
New Zealand’s Gift to the World – The Youth Justice Family Group Conference, by Judge Carolyn Henwood and Stephen Stratford, examines how this world-leading process is working and how it can be improved.
Family group conferences were introduced in 1989 as part of the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act, so that informed and responsible decisions could be made about young at-risk people.
Drawing on interviews with workers in the youth justice field, within and outside government, the work both celebrates the successes of family group conferences and makes specific recommendations for improvement.
The book (cover illustrated) was launched at Te Papa in December by Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, and “re-launched” this month at the Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland, with speakers including Dr Pita Sharples, Judge Sir David Carruthers, and Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft.
Judge Henwood says the book has attracted strong media interest and is sought after by bookshops around New Zealand, including in smaller towns.
“It’s really taken off,” she says. “The comments have been fantastic – it’s written for New Zealanders, people love the book, they find it really accessible with its pull-out comments and case studies.”
Issues raised include the need for better collaboration between the State and Māori, and for stronger leadership within government. Judge Henwood is critical of the lack of leadership and evaluation among the four agencies involved with the family group conference process (Child Youth and Family, the Youth Court, the Justice Ministry and the Police).
She says that issues raised in the book will be explored further at a forum to be held in July, involving “those who will change the landscape” within the youth justice sector.
The book was written in collaboration with The Office of the Principal Youth Court Judge, the Police and The Office of the Chief Social Worker. The Law Foundation provided $32,000 for the book, which was also supported by the Tindall Foundation and the Todd Foundation.
Coronial Law Recommendations: Do They Have the Potential to Save New Zealanders’ Lives? by Dr Jennifer Moore and Professor Mark Henaghan, of Otago University, produced important original findings on ways to improve the coronial system – including some that are at odds with proposed Government reforms.
Starting in mid-2012, the study, the most comprehensive ever done of New Zealand’s coronial system, reviewed all coroners’ findings and recommendations between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2012. Some 79 agencies and organisations were interviewed to determine how much notice they take of the findings.
A key recommendation is for all organisations targeted in coroners’ findings – whether public or private – to be required to respond within three months, and the responses made public. But the Coroners Amendment Bill 2014, which will soon get its first reading in Parliament, excludes a mandatory response regime.
The Otago report finds that a mandatory response regime would need to be accompanied by other changes. Factors like untargeted recommendations, under-resourcing and poor access to full coronial findings were also limiting the effectiveness of recommendations.
The study is the first to produce data on the implementation rates of coroners’ recommendations, finding that acceptance rates are “greater than some commentators might expect.”
Organisations interviewed for the study had implemented 31% of recommendations directed at them, and had already taken action on a further 49% of recommendations. Only 20% of recommendations were rejected.
Dr Moore says there is constant local and international interest in the research, including from families involved in inquests, government agencies, business organisations, the media, and coroners themselves.
“They have changed some of their systems and practice – for example, there is more awareness about the necessity to notify parties about adverse comments, and coroners are trying hard to consult previous similar findings,” Dr Moore says.
The Law Foundation fully funded the coronial research project, at a cost of $138,000.
Intellectually Disabled People in the Criminal Justice System was produced by a team led by Dr Brigit Mirfin-Veitch of the Donald Beasley Institute for Research and Education on People with Intellectual Disability in Dunedin.
The team interviewed 40 people with intellectual disability about their experiences with the legal system – many of whom had been through criminal proceedings. They also talked to judges and lawyers, and were assisted by an advisory group including legal and intellectual disability experts.
Dr Mirfin-Veitch says that strong themes from respondents included the need for effective communication, specialist education on working with vulnerable clients, and changes to the legal aid system.
She says project results have been delivered to a well-attended seminar of Justice and Health officials. There will be further presentations to the criminal bar in early March through Continuing Legal Education, and to Court Liaison nurses in April.
The Law Foundation provided full funding of $307,804 for this project.
Better and Better and Better: A legal and ethical analysis of preventive detention in New Zealand looks at the trend towards law that aims not just to punish crime, but to prevent it occurring.
The report was published late last year, around the time that Parliament passed the Public Safety (Public Protection Orders) Bill into law. The new law enables people to be locked up not on the basis of crimes they have committed, but on what they might do in future.
The report acknowledges that some dangerous offenders may need to be detained to protect the public, but it questions whether public protection orders are the best way to do this, especially given existing tools such as preventive detention at sentence, extended supervision orders and civil detention schemes.
The report was co-ordinated by Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan, Director of Otago University’s NZLF Centre for Law & Policy in Emerging Technologies, who also co-ordinated an expert submission to the select committee considering the Public Protection Orders bill.
He says that the Government has expanded the scope of extended supervision orders to include high-risk violent as well as sexual offenders, and has scrapped the 10-year limit for these orders, allowing them to run as long as necessary.
This was a welcome change called for in the Otago expert submission, though the ‘nuclear option’ of locking people up indefinitely had also been retained. “We have been assured that PPOs will be used very rarely,” Colin says.
The Law Foundation fully funded this project at a cost of $17,500. These research reports can be read in full and downloaded from the Law Foundation’s website www.lawfoundation.org.nz under the ‘publications’ tab. The Youth Justice Family Group Conference book is available from the Henwood Trust email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lynda Hagen is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.