Serco's criticism of Mt Eden fight club report 'wholly unwarranted', judge says

Justice Clark rejected Serco's application for review.

High Court judge Karen Clark has dismissed Serco's application for a judicial review of the Department of Corrections investigation into organised fighting at Mount Eden Correctional Facility, saying the private prison operator's criticisms were "wholly unwarranted."

In the High Court in Wellington yesterday, Justice Clark rejected Serco's application for review and ordered the company to pay costs, saying its description of the report as "a collection of unsubstantiated claims and allegations drawn together in such as way as to willfully portray Serco in the worst possible light and to minimise any criticism of the department" was "unfounded and inaccurate."

The investigation was "thorough" and the chief inspector "consistently objective, balanced and concerned to meet his obligations of fairness to Serco," she said.

Serco sought the judicial review of the report in a bid to get it re-written, claiming its right to natural justice was breached by the partial reliance on anonymous interviews and that the inspector erred in law in his approach to the evidence.

"To my mind, the report is measured and temperate and Serco's description of it is wholly unwarranted," the judgment said. "The investigation was fair and the report is without error."

Serco took over the management of the Mt Eden in 2011 after winning a $300 million, 10-year contract. The discovery of fighting footage uploaded to the YouTube streaming video website triggered an investigation into organised fighting and access to contraband in the prison and came at a time when Serco's contract was up for review.

The company has since lost the Mt Eden contract, though that hasn't affected its management of the Wiri facility in South Auckland, and doesn't bar it from bidding for future work.

Justice Clark said Serco accepted most of the recommendations in the report but drew a line with the body.

"It is telling that in its response to the final draft report Serco accepted the finding that 'it is likely that organised fighting in the form of contender fighting or fight club was occurring at least once a week during certain periods' yet now takes the position that the finding was not available to the chief inspector other than on the basis of objectionable oral information," the judgment said.

Justice Clark didn't agree the chief inspector went beyond his terms of reference in finding Serco failed to adequately resource processes letting prisoners phone lawyers in a timely manner, and kitchen sanitation was "far below acceptable standard" and contaminated food had probably been served to prisoners.

In a statement, Serco said it accepted the ruling and will work with the Corrections Department on the next steps.


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