The nearly-30-year fight to clear convicted child sex offender Peter Ellis' name will go to the Supreme Court today, despite the fact he died in September.

Ellis, who was 61 at the time of his death, spent years battling the controversial convictions on the basis he had suffered a miscarriage of justice.

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He was released from prison in 2000, after serving seven years for abusing seven children at the Christchurch Civic Childcare Centre in 1991.


He had been convicted, after a trial in the High Court at Christchurch in 1993, of 16 counts of sexual offending.

He has always maintained his innocence and the verdicts in his trial have remained contentious - they have been described as being the result of mass hysteria, in the book A City Possessed, by Lynley Hood.

Hood criticised the convictions as a "witch-hunt" at a time when hysteria around child abuse was sweeping the nation.

The original 16 charges were based on the preschoolers' testimony of satanic ritual abuse and torture.

Some of the more bizarre allegations included claims the children were made to strip and dance naked and were hung in cages.

Other allegations made by the children included having their genitals cut off, having sticks inserted into their bottoms, needles inserted into them, being placed in coffins, taking part in ritual killings and taking part in mock marriages.

Children also said they were forced to eat faeces and kick each other in the genitals as adults stood around them in a circle playing guitars.

Peter Ellis with his lawyer, Judith Ablett-Kerr QC, contemplate what's next after an application for his pardon was refused by the Governor-General in 2001. File photo / Peter Meecham
Peter Ellis with his lawyer, Judith Ablett-Kerr QC, contemplate what's next after an application for his pardon was refused by the Governor-General in 2001. File photo / Peter Meecham

There has been heavy criticism of the interviewing techniques used with the children.


Three convictions were overturned in 1994 after one of the children said she lied, but a second appeal against the remaining 13 convictions was dismissed in 1999.

After the second Court of Appeal decision there was a ministerial inquiry in 2001 by Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, which concluded there was no risk of a miscarriage of justice.

There have also been unsuccessful petitions to Parliament for a royal commission in 2003, 2008 and 2014.

In his application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, Ellis said the complainant interviews fell far short of best practice - even at the time of the alleged offending - and there was a strong possibility of contamination of the evidence.

He also argued the jury was not appropriately assisted at the trial by the expert witnesses, which was unreliable.

Ellis died from cancer in September, but a hearing to decide whether his case will proceed is being heard in the Supreme Court in Wellington this morning.

Lawyer Robert Harrison told the court the matter should proceed because it was an issue of public importance and addressed a systemic issue in the justice system.

The point of the appeal would relate to memory, and the use of memory experts in court, something which risked "vastly underestimating . . . the impact of suggestion", he said.

He said this was a problem courts still faced today, and it was important to look at how not to contaminate children's evidence.

Before Ellis died, "what he was most emphatic about was that we continue", he said.

While Ellis' interests no longer mattered to the court, the stigma against Ellis' mother remained, as she was claimed to have been involved in the offending, but was never charged.

Harrison said if the convictions were quashed there could be no retrial.

"One of the things about memory is that if it is distorted and if it is embedded, it can't be changed."

Crown lawyer Una Jagose said Ellis' case was "not one of those rare and exceptional cases that should be continued after the death of an appellant".

When Ellis died, his interests died too, and the interests of the family and supporters did not overwhelm those of the victims, she said.

The issue of memory was something that came up still, and if it were to make it to the Supreme Court to be addressed, it would be on the basis of current law and practice, she said.

Justice Joe Williams questioned whether the court needed to divert from the "anglo" perspective that a person's interests did not matter after they died.

"In a tikanga context the death not only is not irrelevant . . . but an ancestor has even more reputation to protect - is more tapu, has more mana. So the Māori perspective on this I would have thought would be opposite to the anglo perspective."

The lawyers will file written submissions on Justice Williams' query, and the decision on the appeal will be released in writing at a later date.