The New Zealand Public Interest Project

Following the exoneration of Teina Pora for the murder of Suzanne Burdett earlier this year, there’s been a lot of valuable discussion in the media and in our communities about miscarriages of justice and whether our justice system is effectively set up to deal with them. There has been a high level of public interest in how we address these problems, and there has been, in some corners, support for the establishment of a Criminal Case Review Commission to investigate them – a last-resort failsafe of sorts.

It was my pleasure, then, to organise for the Law and Order Select Committee to be briefed yesterday by the New Zealand Public Interest Project. The New Zealand Public Interest Project is a group of prominent academics, lawyers, investigators and forensic scientists who believe that it is in “the highest interest of the New Zealand public to investigate and appeal potential miscarriages of justice wherever possible.” The Select Committee was briefed by two of the Project’s trustees: Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a University of Canterbury sociologist and thoughtful public commentator on justice issues, and Dr Anna Sandiford, a forensic science consultant who has had a role in some of the country’s most prominent criminal cases. The Committee heard of the Project’s structure and intentions, and spoke with the trustees on other matters of interest to the Committee.

The Project is designed to act as a substitute for an official Criminal Case Review Commission, investigating public interest cases in both criminal and civil jurisdictions and moving to protect the rights of those caught up in those cases. They currently have twenty-one full applications before them to consider.

We can measure the humanity of our justice system by how many or how few innocent people are suffering within it, and for the Project to have already received that many requests in the first few months of its existence demonstrates its value. However, the Project currently isn’t resourced to deal with that volume of requests.

It seems obvious, then, that the Government should move to support groups like the Project. Hopefully yesterday’s briefing is just the start of the Project having a fruitful role in our justice ecosystem – and the start of the Government taking seriously the damage miscarriages of justice do to our society’s integrity and humanity.


1 Comment Posted

  1. 20 innocent people in jail at any one time seems very conservative to me, as a practising trial lawyer of 30 years’ experience – there are many low-key cases like benefit or ACC or tax fraud where criminal intent may be lacking but there’s been technical no-compliance through lack of understanding. Also, alcohol and drugs take away criminal intent, in some cases, for a range of public order or violent offences. An exuberant slap of a street sign when out with a group will be termed intentional damage when it may just be damage. These offences stack up and eventually lead to wrongful incarceration.

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