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Crown Law in 1990s accused of 'delay, deny, defend' strategy over Lake Alice

The lawyer who fought to get a multi-million dollar Lake Alice settlement says the Crown under the fourth National Government appeared to delay the process with a view to "obstruct and delay until the other party runs out of money or motivation". 

Lake Alice Hospital. Source: Pawful/Wikimedia Commons

It was in the mid-1990s when Christchurch-based lawyer Grant Cameron began his battle for compensation for a number of plaintiffs who'd described how as wards of the state they had been subjected to abuse, including the punitive use of electroconvulsive therapy.

But it took till 2001 for the Crown - under Helen Clark's Labour agreement to issue an apology and reach a financial settlement; with further settlements being made available as further claimants came forward. 

His statements come as part of the current Royal Commission of Inquiry into what went on at Lake Alice's Child and Adolescent Unit during the 1970s; and the official response in the years after the serious allegations of abuse and torture came to light. 

Abuse survivor wrote cry for help to his mum in cartoons he drew while at Lake Alice

In his evidence Cameron describes how he fought for years to get the Crown to agree to settle. "From the date of my meeting with Bill English (in mid-1997), the Crown Law Office exhibited behaviour consistent with a maintenance of a 'dely, deny, defend' strategy, whereby one party hopes to generally obstruct and delay until the other part runs out of money and/or motivation."

The lawyer first wrote to the Attorney General in 1997 - suggesting an inquiry would be appropriate, as he lay out the background of the case - including the concerns raised around how none of the government agencies involved at the time, namely the Department of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Education, had carried out a proper investigation into the unit in the 1970s. 

That same year a 2020 televsion show investigation higlighlighed the experience of four former patients who gave first-hand descriptions of the use of ECT therapy on them as children, and the painful paraldehyde injections they also received. 

The media attention, he says, was influential in helping him secure a meeting with the then Health Minister Bill English who had expressed how "apalled" he was by the stories coming out of Lake Alice. 

"I was horrified, like anyone else, these people were about my age ... so when I was getting on the school bus and having a healthy, secure childhood, these people were being terrorised and I've found it all very moving," English told broadcaster Kim Hill in a live interview at the time. 

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Bill English. Source: Luke Appleby/1 NEWS NOW

But despite the minister's public statements of condemnation, Cameron says this did not expediate the process. Over the subsequent months, despite repeated communication between both the Minister and the Ministry of Health, there was no resolution in sight. 

He drew comparisons to the relatively quick settlement over the 1995 Cave Creek disaster - where a scenic viewing platform at Paparoa National Park, collapsed and killed 14 people.

"If the Solictor General could make such a clear cut decision on [that], it seemed to me the Crown Law Office could have achieved the same in the face of systematic and long-standing torture allegations, had it been minded to do so," Cameron said.

Son says dad sent him to Lake Alice Hospital 'to get rid' of him

"I have no knowledge as to its precise instructions, but there was an obvious inconsistency here with which the Crown Law never addressed or explained." 

Cameron described how by 1998 it began to look as if an out of court resolution was no longer being considered. 

"Contrary to Minister English's earlier expressed intentions, the Crown was attempting to reserve for itself the right to make the relevant investigations, and collect, and collate and analyse the facts as it might see fit." 

Wyatt Creech took over as the Minister of Health in late 1998. And Cameron said by early 1999 it became clear the then-National Government had "no intention of engaging in a fair process to resolve claims". 

In fact, it was not till after the 1999 election that saw the Labour-led government take power that a settlement was reached; with a formal apology and a settlement agreed upon in 2001. 

The delay, Cameron says, proved costly for the claimants. 

"I believe the stance taken by the Crown Law Office ... whether on instructions or by unilateral action, forced my client group to incur significantly higher costs than they otherwise would have." 

The Royal Commission Inquiry is set to continue till early next week.