Jury mistake on Colin Craig’s defamation defence, Supreme Court told
The case that produced the largest defamation award yet in New Zealand has made it to the Supreme Court.
Conservative Party founder and former leader Colin Craig was sued for defamation by Jordan Williams, co-founder of the Taxpayers’ Union.
The background to the case was Craig’s relationship with his former press secretary Rachel MacGregor, allegations that he had sexually harassed her, what Williams alleged about that despite MacGregor’s plea for secrecy, and how Craig responded at a press conference and a leaflet drop to 1.6 million homes nationwide.
The hard-fought case lasted nearly four weeks at the High Court in Auckland, leading to a jury awarding Williams $1.27 million damages. In the Court of Appeal one lawyer described the trial has having been “horrendous”
At the Supreme Court on Tuesday Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias said the court was familiar with the background.
“We would be delighted if there’s not too much colour,” she told Craig’s lawyer, Stephen Mills, QC.
The award was a record for New Zealand, so high that the trial judge thought it excessive, set it aside, and ordered a retrial.
Both sides were unhappy with that outcome. Williams thought the jury’s verdicts and damages should have stood and Craig thought the trial judge misdirected the jury on one of his defences and that he should have won.
In a decision issued in March, the Court of Appeal said the case should return to the High Court for a new damages award to be made.
Again, both sides were unhappy and the Supreme Court appeal continues on Wednesday, including hearing from Williams’ lawyer on whether the damages award should have been set aside.
Mills told the Supreme Court that the size of the award had to be explained and, working backwards, the explanation had to be that there were errors in the process, so the whole case should be tried again, not just the damages.
Craig says Williams said untrue things, and Craig had a defence to the defamation claim and should have won. The defence was called qualified privilege which Mills said was Craig’s right to respond to an attack on his political and personal reputation, and to say what was being said about him was not true.
After hearing the judge’s summing up the jury might have thought it was no big deal to set aside the privilege defence, but Mills said it was a very big deal.
One of Williams’ lawyers, Ali Romanos, agreed with the Chief Justice that a response to an attack did not have to be “too polite”, but he added that it had to be a “proper” reply to the attack.
Romanos said it was for the jury to decide who to believe about the sexual harassment allegations. He suggested Craig’s credibility was heavily impugned during the case, and it was open to the jury to find that Craig had sexually harassed MacGregor and acted with a lack of integrity about her pay.