The Ministry of Social Development will stop using fake names and signatures when dealing with "high risk" clients, after a court ruling found the behaviour was illegal.

In a ruling last month, the High Court found the ministry's practice of using fictitious names and signatures breached the right to natural justice.

The Herald revealed in 2017 that members of the ministry's Benefit Review Committee were using pseudonyms when dealing with beneficiaries they considered unsafe, despite being told not to.

The ministry had argued that up to 80 of its clients were so threatening and abusive they were not allowed to know staff names, and had no face-to-face contact with staff.

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It had been using pseudonyms since 2004 "as one way to protect staff" in Benefit Review Committee cases. The committee reviews cases where clients disagree with ministry decisions.

Today, Viv Rickard the deputy chief executive of service delivery at MSD, said the ministry had decided to stop using fake names.

"We accept the court decision and we will stop using pseudonyms in Benefit Review Committee cases," he said.

READ MORE:
• High court rules use of fake names illegal
• Use of fake names labelled "repugnant"

Officials would instead continue other safety procedures to protect staff, including locking down our offices and involving police, where necessary.

"We are absolutely committed to the safety and security of our staff," Rickard said.

BACKGROUND TO THE CASE

The fake names issue arose after a Taranaki woman - Sonya Lawson - appealed against seven decisions made by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) not to give her particular benefits.

Those decisions were made by the ministry's internal review body, named the Benefit Review Committee (BRC), which is comprised of a chair and two ministry staff.

Unhappy with the BRC, Lawson had appealed to the relative tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Authority, in 2016.

Lawson, who has a long history of conflict with the ministry, is part of a group of about 80 Work and Income clients considered a "risk" to staff and placed in a "Remote Client Unit" who have no face-to-face contact with staff.

During the appeal, a ministry manager wrote to the authority arguing Lawson's behaviour meant that the names of the committee members dealing with her also needed to be secret.

Until then, the authority was unaware the names and signatures on the decision documents it was dealing with from the committee were false.

It said it was extremely concerned because it had previously warned MSD chief executive Brendan Boyle that the use of fake names was unlawful.

At that time Boyle gave an undertaking the practice would stop, the authority said.

But Boyle told the Herald today he had said no such thing. "I am absolutely committed to the safety of my staff. That is why I supported the practice of using pseudonyms for members of the Benefits Review Committee on those occasions when they hear cases where clients may pose a safety risk."

The authority listed a further seven times where Boyle had used fake names, saying it was not acceptable.

"The concept of 'faceless' decision-makers in a statutory process of independent review is repugnant to the most fundamental concept of justice," it said.

"In New Zealand's open justice system, the most serious crime is prosecuted by prosecutors whose identity is not hidden, members of juries who do not have their identities concealed hear cases, and judges do not have their identities hidden either."

Without being identified, there was no way to ensure the members of the committee were not biased, or if they were fit to be on the committee, the authority said.

The Ministry of Social Development did not agree with the Social Security Appeals Authority decision, and appealed to the High Court. Last month, it lost the appeal.

Justice David Collins quashed any argument of staff members' health and safety being at risk by using their own names.

He said while Lawson's abusive and threatening communications were "unacceptable", the ministry had behaved unlawfully.

He ruled keeping the names secret breached Lawson's right to natural justice, as she would be unable to challenge the member's impartiality or their qualifications if she did not know who they were.

ABOUT THE REMOTE CLIENT UNIT

*The Ministry of Social Development established the Remote Client Unit to deal with clients whose behaviour was abusive and threatening in 2004. At the same time it began using pseudonyms to protect our staff

*Benefit Review Committees (BRC) review cases where clients have disagreed with decisions the ministry has made

*Clients can also take a case to the New Zealand Social Security Appeal Authority if they do not agree with a BRC decision

*At any one time the ministry is dealing with 80 clients in BRCs, a small proportion of its 260,000 welfare clients