Court of Appeal sets aside compensation for over-detained person due to judicial immunity

The over-detainment was caused by an error in a committal warrant

Court of Appeal sets aside compensation for over-detained person due to judicial immunity

The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court decision that awarded compensation to a person who was detained longer than his sentence due to an error in a committal warrant.

The appeal in Attorney-General v Putua [2024] NZCA 67 delved into the complexities of judicial immunity and its application to registrar actions. Koro Putua had been imprisoned for 33 days beyond his sentence because of a mistake in a committal warrant prepared by a deputy registrar and erroneously signed by a district court judge.

The appeal centred on whether the crown could be held liable for the deputy registrar’s error in drafting the warrant. The high court had previously awarded Putua $11,000 in damages for unlawful detention, asserting that the registrar’s mistake constituted arbitrary detention in breach of s. 22 of the Bill of Rights.

However, the Court of Appeal disagreed, highlighting the principles of judicial immunity as a pivotal aspect of the case. Judicial immunity traditionally protects judges from being sued for actions taken in the course of their judicial duties, a protection extended to registrars when performing tasks integral to judicial decisions.

The appeal questioned the high court's application of judicial immunity to the deputy registrar’s actions and whether the judge’s signing of the erroneous warrant broke the causal chain of liability. The appeal court concluded that the deputy registrar's actions, directly supporting judicial decisions, warranted immunity. Accordingly, the court concluded that the crown could not be held liable for the registrar’s error under the Bill of Rights.

The court underscored the judiciary's independence, affirming that registrars, when executing judicial decisions, are protected under the umbrella of judicial immunity. The court emphasised that allowing liability for such actions could undermine judicial independence and blur the lines between judicial and administrative responsibilities.

Additionally, the Court addressed the notion of causation, acknowledging that while the judge's failure to spot the error did not absolve the original mistake, it did not constitute an intervening act that severed the link to the wrongful detention. As a result, the appeal court set aside the high court’s compensatory award.

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