A notorious convicted murderer is once again in court, this time claiming Corrections unlawfully stopped prisoners from using temporary release after his own high-profile escape to South America.

Phillip John Smith appeared in the High Court at Auckland this morning to challenge the legality of the suspensions and restrictions regarding temporary release and release-to-work programmes for prisoners after he fled to Brazil in 2014.

"This is a very important case, your honour, for the vulnerable group of New Zealand prisoners who would generally struggle to bring a claim of this type before the court," Smith said.

"Literally hundreds of prisoners were affected by this decision-making."


A lot of prisoners were still feeling the effect today, he said.

The suspensions impinged on the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, and therefore in turn on the public safety, Smith said.

Smith said the government inquiry into his escape reported the restrictions had a significant impact on prisoners, families, employers and community groups.

Prisoners affected and indeed employers might be eligible for compensation, he said.

Smith said the national commissioner "blatantly" admitted that an underlying rationale backing the changes was for the reputation of Corrections.

"In my submission that is an aggravating dimension to this case."

Crown counsel Alison Todd, acting on behalf of the Attorney General and Corrections, said that it was within the power of chief executive Ray Smith to issue guidelines at the time.

"Here the chief executive's evidence was that public safety was put at serious risk when Mr Smith escaped," Todd said.

The suspension of temporary release, with some exemptions, was made on November 11 2014, in an email and then fleshed out in circulars thereafter, Todd said.

That decision was made five days after Smith fled the country.

"That decision was driven by public safety.

"On the public safety point, they did not know how Mr Smith had escaped at that time."

This gave rise to the possibility the same flaw could by used by others, she said.

"It was in response to a crisis and it was temporary."

This was a temporary system helped enable an urgent review - "it was time bound."

Those measures only remained in place until October 2015, she said.

The number of people on temporary release had organically increased but with it not proper risk assessment, she said.

For those affected the decision was only deferred, not declined, she said.


Smith, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, paedophile offending, aggravated burglary and kidnapping in 1996.

He had molested a 13-year-old-boy over a three-year period, and later stabbed the boy's father to death.

He was given a minimum non-parole period of 13 years. He has sought but been denied parole.

Smith began to lose his hair in 2001 and sought approval from the Auckland Prison manager to wear a wig in 2012.

A psychological assessment supported his claim that it would improve his self-esteem and confidence, and aid his rehabilitation.

He received a custom-made wig in April 2013.

He then used it to disguise himself when he fled to Brazil while on temporary release in 2014.