Corrections re-victimises the victims – Susan Couch’s story

On December 11, 2011 the NZ Herald reported that the families of those killed by Wililam Bell gathered to remember those they lost in the Panmure RSA ten years ago. Bell killed three people at the RSA and seriously injured another – Susan Couch.

In 2001, Ms Couch was working part time doing the club’s accounts. She survived Bell’s attack – but only just. Both her arms were broken; she received severe head injuries and lost about 80 per cent of her blood. Ambulance officers said she came as close to dying as she could get. She spent six months in Middlemore Hospital, followed by years of rehabilitation.

Permanent damage

The legacy of Bell’s assault on Ms Couch is still visible. The head injuries subsequently led to a stroke and permanent brain damage. She has no function in her left arm and can’t even wash the dishes. Her left leg is disabled and she walks with a stick.  She also has paralysed vocal chords which impact on her speech.  She was unable to get ACC for lost earnings or a lump sum payment because, shortly before the attack, she’d had to give up work to look after her young son. All she received from ACC was $60 a week.

Ms Couch brought a claim in the High Court seeking exemplary damages from the Corrections Department for failing to exercise “reasonable care” in Bell’s parole supervision. The Court of Appeal struck out the High Court action, saying her negligence claim could not succeed because the probation service owed her no duty of care. That was overturned by the Supreme Court last year when it gave her the go-ahead to sue the department.

But her quest for justice will need to show the Department had “consciously appreciated the risk” that releasing Bell on parole posed to her safety and that it “proceeded deliberately and outrageously to run that risk”. Ms Couch’s lawyer, Brian Henry, said she had “no illusions” that she had a difficult legal battle ahead but vowed he would show Corrections had deliberately contributed to the outcome.

So far legal proceedings have taken ten years and Ms Couch has still not had her day in Court. The hearing is finally expected to take place sometime this year.

How the Department failed Susan Couch

William Bell was in prison for 3½ years before he attacked Susan Couch and the three others he killed at the RSA. The Corrections Department failed to provide Bell with addiction treatment and psychological support in prison, and failed to monitor his release on parole.  In this respect, the Department has contributed to his on-going drug addiction which subsequently led to his rampage at the RSA.

Section 5 of the Corrections Act of 2004 says “The purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society.”

In regard to Susan Couch, the Department failed miserably on both counts – it didn’t do anything with Bell that would improve public safety and certainly didn’t provide Susan Couch or society with justice.  All she wants is $500,000.  For God’s sake,  give her the money – and an apology.

2 thoughts on “Corrections re-victimises the victims – Susan Couch’s story

  1. It upsets me to think of the huge impact Bell’s attack on Susan Couch has had on her son. He lost the healthy parent he was entitled to and had to deal with the trauma of a severely injured mother.

    Until I started to read your blogs, I had wrongly assumed that all prisoners had access to addiction services. That they do not is an injustice to them and New Zealand society.


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