The Ministry of Social Development spent more than a million dollars paying private lawyers to fight claims of abuse at a state-funded bootcamp on Great Barrier Island before finally settling with victims for $340,000.

Settlement with four claimants to proceedings, the last of which came in February, followed a 12-year battle in the courts which also saw the Ministry stuck with costs due to Legal Aid of $369,000.

Labour Party deputy leader Jacinda Ardern called the expense and delays extraordinary and questioned whether it was a just or wise use of taxpayer money.

"No one is going to look at a case like this - with extraordinary amounts spent on legal costs and small outcomes for victims - and think this is a good process," she said.

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Ardern said figures provided to her office showed $6.5m had been spent in total by MSD on external legal counsel fighting a handful of historic abuse cases over the past decade, with only one getting to trial.

"The question I have is: Given the huge amount spent to stop cases going before the court, is the Crown being a responsible litigant?"

A spokesman for MSD said the Whakapakari case was managed appropriately and in accordance with government policy on litigation.

The spokesman said the case was complicated by 15 interlocutory applications and appeals, but also by a "legal issue of significance to the Crown beyond the facts of the particular claims".

The Weekend Herald understand this issue concerns the liability of the state for actions taken by contractors acting on its behalf.

Minister for Social Development Anne Tolley said in a statement she was confident her Ministry's approach was the correct one: "I have every confidence we have a very good system in place to assist those who have grievances."

The Whakapakari claimants, whose identities were protected by suppression orders, alleged a range of physical and sexual abuse including being subject to mock-executions, beatings and solitary confinement to a rocky islet that become known by camp attendees as "Alcatraz".

The ponderous end to the proceedings has short-circuited a long-delayed trial that would marked the first opportunity to cast a judicial spotlight on what went on at the isolated Whakapakari youth justice facility.

Sonja Cooper of Cooper Legal, who acted for the four and also for another 50 former Whakapakari residents with claims in the High Court, said even a process described as "fast track" was taking years and the drawing-out of proceedings was deliberate.

"To some degree it is a deliberate policy. By dragging it out, they wear them [claimants] down through attrition," she said.

Cooper said she supported the Human Rights Commissions call for the government to open a public inquiry into the historic abuse of young people in state case.

"The issue of an inquiry is right, it's to bring all this stuff into the open. It's all very well for Tolley and English to say we know what happened, but, actually, we don't. Because MSD deny every claim in every case," she said.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said such an inquiry would help with the governments' pledge for better public services: "How can they honestly do this without investigating and learning from costly systemic and intergenerational failures?" she said.

Ardern also threw her weight behind calls for an inquiry. "We're not learning from our mistakes: There should be a state apology," she said.

Minister Tolley said she was not swayed. "I have always said that any kind of abuse against kids in state care is abhorrent," she said.

"An inquiry wouldn't settle any grievances."

The Whakapakari proceedings by the taxpayer numbers
Victims: 4
Years in court: 12
MSD spent on private lawyers: $1,065,585
MSD settlement payments to victims: $369,000
MSD contribution to Legal Aid costs: $369,159
Legal Aid costs written off: $184,590