Crime victims are unaware that their name, address and phone number can be passed on to criminals when they request court documents using a request form from the Ministry of Justice, advocates say.
A victim of family sexual violence told RNZ that she felt “sick” knowing that her attacker had a right to know that she wanted a copy of the sentencing notes and that she could see her personal data.
Discovering this, the shocked Waikato Sensible Sentencing Trust Group Waikato victim advocate, Karrin Coates, who has written a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Justice.
Coates regularly requests court documents on behalf of victims and had never realized that the criminals and their attorneys saw the form.
He said there was no warning on the five-page form.
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“Many of our victims do not know this,” he said. “In actual court document forms, there is nothing to indicate that this information will be given to your offender.
“I found out the hard way because my data was given to a murderer. And I did not know.
“There needs to be some kind of warning that your information will actually be given to an offender, especially in cases of domestic violence, cases of sexual violence where the offender [has] committed the crime against the person submitting the application.
“Their personal data can be given without them knowing. And that’s wrong. Something has to be done about it.”
He said victims of family violence and people with protection orders were particularly at risk.
Access to court records is governed by the 2017 Court Document Access Rules for Superior and District Courts. There is a general right of access to some court documents, but individuals must request others.
The official Request for Access to Court Documents form requests the name, lawyer, address, postal address, mobile and business telephone numbers, email, and reasons for accessing the information.
Legislation requires the court clerk delivers a copy of the request to the “parties,” that is, the offender, or their attorney, who have three business days to respond to the request with any objections to the release of information. Then a judge considers whether to deliver the documents to the applicant.
New Zealand Courts Website through which people access the form it just says: “When the registrar receives your request, they will share it with the relevant parties. Anyone wishing to object must notify the registrar in writing within the required time.”
Victims submitted the form or a link to it by court personnel would not even receive that opaque warning.
Executive Director of Women’s Refuge, Dr. Ang Jury, said it was “an absolute surprise”, particularly the inclusion of addresses.
“Often the only way victims can stay safe is if the abuser, their abuser, doesn’t know where they are,” he said. “That they give them his address is a real surprise; it is incredibly insecure. Especially if the victim has no idea that they have been given that information.”
The jury said that the issue is an example that the justice system is “a very big machine”; process-driven and impersonal.
“It is not adequate to provide the degree of care to individual victims that we think would be desirable,” he said.
“Presumably it’s an oversight or someone just hasn’t thought this could be dangerous; that shows the impersonal nature of the machine.
“What does ‘relevant parties’ mean? If you are a victim looking for that information, who do you consider a relevant party? Do you understand that this is the perpetrator? Probably not.”
In times of great stress, when victims were in danger, official forms had to include “very clear and simple language.”
Following RNZ’s consultations, the Justice Ministry said it would study changing the form.
Operations and service delivery group manager Jacquelyn Shannon admitted that the ministry’s website and application form do not make it clear to applicants that their application will be sent to violators.
“The ministry is now considering how to improve the information provided both on the website and in the application form.”
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