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Disability advocate outraged by Ministry of Health legal fees

The Ministry of Health is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees, fighting families that care for their disabled children.

A mother pushes her adult daughter around a shopping mall in a wheelchair.
Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Independent disability advocate Jane Carrigan said three matters, all which still have a long way to run through the court system had already cost the government more than $600,000 in litigation fees.

"It's just disgusting, this just reinforces that they're happy to spend the money but just not on the people who warrant it.

"Why pay carers when you could be paying lawyers."

The ministry confirmed it had spent $646,578 with the law firm Simpson Grierson in relation to the Fleming, Butt and Humphreys matters.

Peter Humphreys recently won his bid in the Employment Court to be considered an employee of the Ministry of Health, and not his severely disabled daughter for whom he provides fulltime care.

His case however, along with Christine Fleming's which she won on similar grounds, had been appealed by the director-general of health and would be heard together later this year.

Being employed by the ministry and not their children, could mean compensation for lost wages and holiday pay.

For Peter Humphreys it also means the ministry must take responsibility for his health and safety.

"It wasn't never around [compensation], it was about getting my bloody bathroom done to be honest.

"It all started when we moved into a new house and we needed a bathroom modification. Sian [my daughter] weighs about 110 kilograms and she needs everything done for her - six or seven nappies changed a day and stuff like that - so we needed a bathroom modification."

An occupational therapist on behalf of the ministry confirmed a modification was necessary for health and safety reasons but it raised sticky questions over exactly who was employing Humphreys for his work - his daughter, or the government.

"It was too complicated to decide who the employer was so then they referred it to the Employment Court and the court said the Ministry of Health was my employer.

"So all the costs, and all these things that I've had to jump through, it would have cost them $20,000 to alter my bathroom but they were quite willing to spend all these thousands on taking it through the courts."

Since the Employment Court ruling in December, Humphreys said he had been in limbo.

"When the judge said you [ministry] have to look after his health and safety I thought that's a clear message, but after that they started saying 'oh we'll get some advice'... and they haven't done anything about it."

Carrigan said this was not about families being greedy.

"This is not about wanting to be paid for every second they spend with their child. The fact of the matter is they spend 24/7 with their child because we no longer have a system that provides regular respite, or a system that provides regular day programmes for people.

"If the Crown's not the employer then they need to start providing families with meaningful alternatives."

She had no doubt the cases would drag on, costing families and the ministry even more money.

"Look, this money is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Crown has spent fighting carer cases, they have spent millions since 2008 when the first issues were raised in the new Human Rights Review Tribunal.

"They lost everything that has ever been taken [before the courts]... and the Crown continues to ignore the [court] decisions."

The Ministry of Health said it could not respond to questions while the matters were before the courts.

source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/465687/disability-advocate-outraged-by-ministry-of-health-legal-fees