SFO already abuses powers - Parker

Labour finance spokesman pledges to repeal provisions in the Search and Surveillance Bill which allow the Serious Fraud Office to raid journalists' offices without a warrant.

Labour would repeal provisions in the Search and Surveillance Bill which allow the Serious Fraud Office to raid journalists’ offices without a warrant.

The party has come out swinging against the provisions, which were added to the bill at the last minute.

The bill has its committee stages on Thursday before proceeding to the third reading and passage into law.

Former Labour Party Justice Minister David Parker said the Serious Fraud Office had abused its powers in the past and it should have to obtain a warrant from a judge before raiding newspaper offices.

In the House, Mr Parker specifically referred to the Serious Fraud Office’s raid on the National Business Review in 2010 to seize material linked to the South Canterbury Finance collapse.

NBR resisted the move but was forced to comply when threatened with prosecution.

The issue of the SFO powers had come up prior to that, during the last Labour government, he said, and he had discussed it with a number of Queen's Counsel.

Some extra powers were needed for the SFO because of new technologies enabling people to break the law, Mr Parker said he was told by the top-flight lawyers.

“There was also the universal – but for one person – view that the Serous Fraud Office abused its powers because it used this non-warranted route for normal investigations which should be carried out either through normal investigative processes or through the Police, with warrants.”

Instead, the legislation turns that around and allows the SFO to search without warrants, but puts the requirement on the journalists to seek a High Court ruling to protect sources.

That protection – while never absolute – is currently in the Evidence Act, states that if a journalist has promised an informant not to disclose the informant’s identity, “neither the journalist nor his or her employer is compellable in a civil or criminal proceeding to answer any question or produce any document that would disclose the identity of the informant or enable that identity to be discovered.”

That protection is not absolute and the courts have powers to over-ride this protection of sources if there is a larger question of public interest.

Mr Parker said the Serious Fraud Office’s powers are “too wide” and the new provisions are a threat to the role of the media.

“Media freedoms are absolutely essential to clean democracies. If you do not have free media, free of intrusion from State agencies, you cannot guarantee the long term strength of your democracy.”

Asked if Labour would repeal the legislation if and when it were elected, Mr Parker said yes.

“I think we should. Its certainly our party position that the SFO should not have this power.”

Justice Minister Judith Collins said the provisions in the bill would provide greater, not lesser, protection for journalists.

“Currently, the media cannot prevent material from being seized during a search and therefore viewed and accessed, although they may subsequently challenge its admissibility in court or seek an interim order to prevent it from being used or viewed,” she said.

“A journalist can claim privilege over information contained in documents preventing the documents from being searched. The documents would then be secured and taken to the High Court for safekeeping until the claim of privilege can be determined.

“Journalists can also refuse to answer questions that would identify a source therefore ensuring the information cannot be disclosed until a judge has made a determination.”

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