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Defendant loses claim against Crown after sentencing botch-up

5 Apr 2024

| Author: Sonia Pinto

Application for appeal – judicial immunity – wrongful imprisonment – New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – Crown liability – Sentencing Act 2002, s 91 – statutory powers – Habeas Corpus Act 2001 – wrongful conviction and detention – chain of causation

Attorney-General v Koro Putua [2024] NZCA 67 per French, Courtney and Katz JJ.

 

Koro Putua, who had been sentenced to 4.5 years’ jail for a variety of offences, was wrongly imprisoned for an extra 33 days due to an error by the deputy registrar in his committal warrant. Putua sought compensation in the High Court under the Bill of Rights Act 1990. (BORA). His application was granted and he was awarded damages of $11,000 plus interest. The Attorney-General appealed.

The main question for the court was whether the High Court was correct in allowing Putua’s compensation claim against the Crown under BORA for the actions of the deputy registrar.

The error in the warrant stemmed from the deputy registrar mistakenly recording a sentence as cumulative instead of concurrent. In the High Court, Putua argued the Crown was liable for this error as the deputy registrar was not covered by judicial immunity.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, however, asserting both the deputy registrar’s and the judge’s actions were protected by judicial immunity.

The court clarified that the correct test for judicial immunity involved examining the role of court officials in carrying out judicial decisions, rather than focusing solely on the exercise of discretion. It emphasised the importance of safeguarding judicial decisions from collateral attacks and maintaining judicial independence.

While Putua could have sought alternative remedies, such as an appeal or habeas corpus, the court held the denial of relief for the judge’s error would still breach international obligations. Therefore, the appeal was allowed, based on the finding of judicial immunity.

Additionally, the court ruled the judge’s signature on the warrant did not constitute an intervening cause, as it did not break the chain of causation between the error and Putua’s detention. Both the deputy registrar’s error and the judge’s failure to check were deemed contributing causes to Putua’s unlawful detention.

No costs were awarded against Putua due to his legal aid status and the absence of exceptional circumstances warranting a costs order.

 

Applicable principles: judicial immunity – wrongful imprisonment – unlawful imprisonment – NZ Bill of Rights Act, s 22 – Crown liability –  Sentencing Act, s 91 – statutory powers – Habeas Corpus Act – wrongful conviction and detention – causation – chain of causation – Cabinet Compensation Guidelines for Wrongful Conviction – Judicial independence – error in committal warrant

 

Held: The appeal was allowed and the decision of the High Court was set aside.

 

Attorney-General v Putua [2024] NZCA 67.

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