Rape info released in privacy blunder

Shane Cowlishaw

Auckland, July 15, 2018

A woman has been left traumatised after a Disputes Tribunal staff member sent details of her rape and mental health to the person she was locked in a legal battle with.

The Auckland woman’s case was scheduled for early June after a claim was lodged regarding damage to a couch she had sold on Trade Me.

Having already been through the courts twice after being sexually assaulted – once by her health professional and more recently after being raped by a stranger – the woman asked if she could appear via video conference link as entering a court building could trigger panic attacks.

Asked to provide supporting evidence and a letter from her psychologist, the woman sent the material to the staff member managing the case.

Confidentiality breached

But she was aghast to discover in an email thread accidentally sent to her by the Trade Me buyer that the staff member had forwarded on the sensitive information to them despite being told it should be kept confidential.

The woman contacted Newsroom after reading about another privacy breach at the Tribunal, where a referee left a confidential case file at a Night and Day convenience store.

Speaking under condition of anonymity, she said that she had suffered a huge panic attack after realising her information had been shared.

Panic attacks

Both her previous experiences with the justice system had been fraught with difficulties.

The rape case had been particularly hard and even walking past a court or police station was enough to set off a panic attack, she said.

“It has been pretty horrible, it sent me back. [The rape] happened a year and a half ago … and I had a really tough time with police. They basically said they were so busy they couldn’t do much about it and they were pretty horrible to deal with.

“This problem with the Ministry of Justice has just made me doubt the whole system and brought back all that anger towards them and the police and the system, feeling like it’s just a mess.”

Privacy Law restrictions

The case manager emailed her an apology but still incensed, the woman contacted both the Privacy Commissioner and the Human Rights Commissioner.

Both offices said they could not help as privacy law did not cover the courts, but the latter suggested she contact Justice Minister Andrew Little’s office.

After doing so, she was immediately contacted by a senior official from the ministry who apologised.

“Initially I was happy with an apology but as time’s gone on, I’m still really struggling. I see a psychiatrist every week and we’ve talked about how it’s taken me right back. It is re-victimisation.”

Official apologies

Jacquelyn Shannon, the ministry’s Court and Tribunals Manager, apologised again and said the case manager should have removed the sensitive information before sending the email.

“It is a lesson for everybody dealing with personal information to be very careful about what is released to third parties and I’ve certainly spoken to justice officials about it.”

“I sincerely regret that this incident occurred and I apologise again for the distress this has caused. This should not have occurred and we are making changes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

The woman had received both a verbal and emailed apology while Shannon confirmed a senior ministry manager had called again to apologise after Little’s office was contacted.

Further training and coaching for staff would be provided and a new policy that new emails should be drafted rather than forwarded had been introduced.

Lesson for all

Little described the incident as disturbing and at the very least an act of carelessness.

“Clearly when information is being sent out by people supporting the Disputes Tribunal they’ve got to check what they’re sending out and she’s been put in a dreadful situation.

“It’s a lesson for everybody dealing with personal information to be very careful about what is released to third parties and I’ve certainly spoken to justice officials about it.”

Shane Cowlishaw is National Affairs Editor at Newsroom, an independent, New Zealand-based news and current affairs site, founded by Mark Jennings, former Head of News and Current Affairs at Mediaworks (TV3) and Tim Murphy, former Editor-in-Chief of the New Zealand Herald. Indian Newslink has published the above Report and Picture under a Special Agreement with www.newsroom.co.nz

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(Image by Shane Cowlishaw)

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