The recent selection of panel members and the publication of the terms of reference for the Independent Child Abuse Inquiry – now called the Statutory Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – means that the long frustrated and delayed process can finally commence.

At Bolt Burdon Kemp, we have previously written a number of blogs about this process.  The importance of the Inquiry, both to victims of abuse and also to the entire country, cannot be overstated.  While we support the Inquiry and its goals, however, we must remain cautious and objective about how it develops.

For instance, the appointment of New Zealand High Court Judge Lowell Goddard to chair the Inquiry has been met with guarded optimism by most.  The question of Justice Goddard’s independence from the ‘baggage’ and politics of the Inquiry, a question that doomed her predecessors, is assumed by most to be a non-issue.

Having practised as one of the only specialist child abuse lawyers in New Zealand for over eight years, primarily dealing with abuse in Staterun institutions, I have to ask – what of Justice Goddard’s independence fromNew Zealand’s baggage?

This is not to suggest that Justice Goddard has any ties to the establishment.  Indeed, earlier this year Justice Goddard expressed doubt as to the existence of such an institution in New Zealand – which is certainly a debatable position, particularly for a former Deputy Solicitor-General.  The topic of this post, however, is this: as a New Zealander, will the new Chair be impacted by views held by those in power ‘back home’ regarding the value of child abuse inquiries?

The approach to child abuse inquiries in New Zealand

In its “exhaustive” worldwide search for an Inquiry Chair, the Foreign Office cannot have overlooked the fact that New Zealand holds the dubious distinction of lagging behind most countries in the Commonwealth (and indeed in the Western World) in its approach to child abuse.  Successive Governments, to date, have resisted all calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into child abuse in its own country.

Official responses to such calls for an inquiry have been dismissive, downplaying the scale and significance of the issue.  It is incredible to assume that New Zealand is somehow unique among Western nations innot suffering from systemic child abuse.

The state of child abuse litigation in New Zealand

When recently questioned by the Home Affairs Committee, Justice Goddard expressed doubt that there was anything like the scale and multi-faceted nature of the problems in the UK Inquiry which may have taken place in New Zealand.  This response echoes the view of the New Zealand Government.

Indeed, as a Judge in the Wellington High Court, Justice Goddard would undoubtedly be aware of the hundreds of civil child abuse claims currently filed against the Government in that Court, some of which have not advanced for nearly a decade, not to mention the hundreds of claims that lawyers for the victims advise have yet to be filed in that Court.

Justice Goddard would most likely be aware of the hundreds of settlements that have already been reached in other such claims against the State, many of which were reached with clients who had no legal representation.

She would most likely also be aware of concerns expressed by New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission and the lawyers for hundreds of claimants about the Wellington High Court’s role in assisting the State in denying justice to these claimants.  In 2010, the United Nations Committee Against Torture recommended that New Zealand:

“…should take appropriate measures to ensure that allegations of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the “historic cases” are investigated promptly and impartially, perpetrators duly prosecuted, and the victims accorded redress, including adequate compensation and rehabilitation.”

New Zealand is shortly coming before the United Nations Committee Against Torture for review once more and there have been a number ofsubmissions relating to the State’s lack of response to this recommendation.

In February 2015, RadioNZ interviewed guests (including a District Court Judge and the New Zealand Minister of Social Development) on three occasions about the backlog of hundreds of outstanding abuse claims, mostly relating to New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development.

While the radio debate largely centred on how quickly the remaining claims would be able to be resolved, a matter about which there is considerable dispute, both the scale of the claims and the New Zealand Government’s failure to respond to these in an adequate or timely manner cannot be denied.

It remains to be seen whether Justice Goddard will demonstrate her independence from the state of denial that exists in the New Zealand Government and Courts.  For the sake of all survivors of child abuse inthis country, I can only hope that she does.