Anniversary of United Nations Committee against Torture Decision

Anniversary of United Nations Committee against Torture Decision

January 23, 2021

Today marks one year since the United Nations Committee against Torture published its decision upholding Mr Paul Zentveld’s complaint. 

Mr Paul Zentveld brought a complaint against the New Zealand Government to the Committee against Torture on 10 July 2017. He alleged that the Government had failed to investigate his claims of torture and ill treatment at the Child and Adolescent Unit at Lake Alice Hospital.  

The Committee made its decision in December 2019 and published it on 23 January 2020. It found that New Zealand had “failed to conduct an effective investigation into the circumstances surrounding the acts of torture and ill treatment suffered by [Mr Zentveld] while he was at [Lake Alice]” in breach of its obligations under Articles 12, 13 and 14 of the Convention. 

The Committee operates under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. New Zealand ratified the Convention in 1989. 

Article 12 says that a state must “ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.” 

The Committee urged the New Zealand Government to: 

  • Conduct a prompt, impartial and independent investigation into Mr Zentveld’s allegations of torture and ill-treatment; 
  • Provide Mr Zentveld with access to appropriate redress, including fair compensation and access to the truth;  
  • Make the Committee’s decision public and disseminate its content widely, with a view to preventing similar violations of the Convention in the future. 

The Human Rights Commission is pleased with news that, in response to the Committee’s decision, the New Zealand Police have committed to completing an investigation into the allegations advanced by Mr Zentveld, through undertaking an extensive file review of the previous investigations relating to the Child and Adolescent Unit at Lake Alice. 

Background to Paul Zentveld’s complaint 

Paul Zentveld was first admitted to Lake Alice in 1974, under psychiatrist Dr Leeks, when he was 13 years old. He was admitted a total of five times over two years and ten months. During these admissions, he was subjected to electric shocks, unmodified electroconvulsive therapy, drugs, and solitary confinement.  

In 1976 and 1977, several complaints were made to the Government with respect to Lake Alice. However, none of the complaints resulted in prosecutions.  

Following media coverage in the late 1990’s and a civil claim in the Wellington High Court, by the early 2000’s the Government had apologised and paid $12.8 million in compensation to 195 victims.  

In 1999 Dr Leeks’ medical practising registration was terminated but there was no investigation against him.  

In 2001, Sir Rodney Gallen was commissioned by the Government to review the complaints concerning Lake Alice. Through his interviews with over 90 former patients, he found that unmodified electroconvulsive therapy was administered not as therapy but punishment.  

Police investigation into Lake Alice  

In 2003, the Government invited former Lake Alice victims who had received an apology to make a complaint to the police. In 2006, Mr Zentveld submitted his complaint to the police, alleging criminal conduct by former Lake Alice staff, including Dr. Leeks.  

However, in 2010, the police closed the investigation due to the time that had elapsed since the events took place, the unavailability of witnesses to substantiate a criminal charge, the six-month time-bar under the Mental Health Act 1969, the fact that they had already compensated the victims, and a perceived lack of public interest in proceeding with a prosecution.  

In 2015, Mr Zentveld requested the police report of the investigation into his complaint of torture and ill-treatment. The report noted that the police had considered the treatment he received amounted to a crime, but for the reasons set out above, they still decided not to prosecute.  

CAT recommendations: Concluding Observations on the fifth and sixth periodic reports of New Zealand 

On 4 June 2009, prior to police closing their investigation, the Committee required New Zealand 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” (CAT/C/NZL/CO/5, para 11).  

In its 2015 Concluding Observations, the Committee found that New Zealand had “failed to investigate or hold any individual accountable for the nearly 200 allegations of torture and ill-treatment against minors at Lake Alice” and thus reiterated its prior recommendation to New Zealand to conduct a prompt, impartial and thorough investigation and prosecute persons suspected of ill-treatment (CAT/C/NZL/CO/6, para 15). Nevertheless, the police’s investigation remained closed.   

Mr Zentveld’s complaint to the Committee relating to New Zealand’s failure to investigate 

In 2017, Mr Zentveld brought his complaint to the Committee. In 2020, the Committee upheld Mr Zentveld’s complaint, noting that it “fail[ed] to see why there is no countervailing public interest in proceeding with a prosecution” given the vulnerability of the children involved and the fact that the New Zealand Police is the only body that may decide on criminal matters.  

With respect to the police’s assertion of a lack of evidence, the Committee found that the authorities had not made sufficient efforts to clarify the facts, despite inviting complainants to come forward in 2003. It also expressed concern that New Zealand authorities had not tried to find out if anybody else besides Dr. Leeks was responsible and by choosing only a “representative complaint for analysis”, the authorities risked ignoring the systemic character of the issue.  

Lastly, the Committee rejected New Zealand’s statutory limitation argument, and instead highlighted its obligation under Article 12 to “ensure that its competent authorities proceed ex officio to a prompt and impartial investigation whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed” (emphasis added).  

Based on these findings, the Committee found New Zealand in breach of its obligations under Articles 12, 13 and 14 of the Convention and directed New Zealand to take steps to remedy the breach.