Winston Peters' 2014 defamation case raises 'very serious constitutional issues'

Author
Kurt Bayer, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 1 Nov 2021, 1:50PM
Winston Peters was in Christchurch today to witness the court proceedings. (Photo / George Heard)
Winston Peters was in Christchurch today to witness the court proceedings. (Photo / George Heard)

Winston Peters' 2014 defamation case raises 'very serious constitutional issues'

Author
Kurt Bayer, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 1 Nov 2021, 1:50PM

A High Court judge has agreed to review her decision that found former NZ First leader Winston Peters defamed a Christchurch businessman during a 2014 speech in parliament after the long-serving politician argued he was protected by parliamentary privilege.

Owner of Claims Resolution Services (CRS), Bryan Staples, was awarded $350,000 in damages in June after suing Richard Freeman who ran a debt-collecting business named Ironclad Securities with a senior Head Hunters gang member.

Staples had been a prominent insurance claims advocate following the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes who promoted his company, which employed about two dozen staff, with a "no-win, no-fee" guarantee.

The ruling in the High Court on June 4 this year by Justice Jan‑Marie Doogue found Staples had been defamed by Freeman in comments originally published on his company Ironclad's Facebook page in 2014, which alleged he was "corrupt".

Justice Doogue also found that then NZ First leader Peters had defamed Staples in a speech he made in Parliament in 2014 which repeated the same allegations.

Winston Peters outside court in Christchurch today. Photo / George Heard

Winston Peters outside court in Christchurch today. Photo / George Heard

However, Peters could not personally be sued for making what the judge found were "defamatory allegations in Parliament", because parliamentary privilege protected the statements.

A large section of Peters' speech was then broadcast on two occasions on MediaWorks TV show Campbell Live – and they have also been party to the legal action.

Today, the case came back before Justice Doogue at the High Court in Christchurch after the Attorney-General sought to have the defamation ruling reassessed.

Lawyer Brian Henry, representing Peters who was in court to witness proceedings, argued that the judge's decision needed to be recalled and reargued to "get the law right".

The issues came around parliamentary privilege which he described as complex and fraught, arguing that an amicus lawyer should have been appointed to help the judge on the "bedevilled area of parliament privilege".

"What you embarked on without assistance was a very difficult task," Henry said to Justice Doogue this morning.

"This is something that needed to be fully argued to assist you and it wasn't."

The case raised "very, very serious constitutional issues", Henry argued, and her judgement needed to be recalled and reargued with the help of an amicus.

Savannah Carter, counsel for Staples and his company, said it was important to remember that Staples had suffered real loss and harm to his reputation, and that the court's judgement was the "only justice" he has received.

She noted that although Freeman was bankrupt, it was in the interests of justice that as much as possible of the original judgement stands.

Two people were involved in a "conspiracy to defame Staples" and his company, she said, and he is still suffering harm "at the hands of the defendants" seven years on.

After the two-hour hearing, Justice Doogue said it was obvious that grounds had been made out for a recall.

She reserved her full decision around the extent of the recall and just what the next steps will look like.

Outside court, Peters said it was a serious matter which he was confident would now be addressed.

"We ended up here to uphold the rights of constitutional matters that have been important for hundreds of years," he said.

The dispute between Staples and Freeman originated when CRS refused to pay $170,000 in outstanding fees for quantity surveying work completed by builder Malcolm Gibson.

The court was told CRS had wrongly believed Gibson was "highly qualified" for the work he had been employed to do. When CRS found out this wasn't true, they requested Gibson employ a suitably qualified quantity surveyor to sign off the work he had done.

Gibson refused this and consequently CRS refused to pay the $170,000 owed to Gibson because it had "no commercial value".

Gibson's response on March 7, 2014, was to sell the $170,000 debt to Ironclad Securities for $1.

Senior Head Hunters gang member Lyndon Richardson co-owned Ironclad Securities with Freeman.

The court heard that: "On the morning of 11 March 2014 two intimidating men arrived at Mr Staples' home to serve him with 'debt acquisition documents'. They required him to pay the $170,000 within seven days and said they would kill him if he did not comply."

When these alleged threats were not met with payment the defamatory comments mentioning Staples by name appeared on Ironclad's Facebook page in early April 2014.

One post on Ironclad's Facebook page on April 8 says: "We have uncovered over $300,000 of debt so far where these Conmen have ripped innocent people off!!"

Staples later obtained a restraining order against Freeman.

In July 2014, Peters made a speech in Parliament repeating similar allegations of fraud against Staples after being provided with documents from Freeman.

In her ruling, Justice Doogue said: "Mr Freeman knowingly and cynically encouraged Mr Peters to make defamatory allegations in Parliament because parliamentary privilege would leave Mr Staples with no recourse against Mr Peters."

Justice Doogue earlier found Freeman was financially motivated to defame Staples with Facebook posts that were an extortion attempt. He sent offensive emails and made threats, and "cynically flouted" the terms of a court interim injunction republishing the District Court documents to Peters.

Freeman was ordered to pay Staples $350,000 in damages, interest from the date of Justice Doogue's June judgment, and costs of $20,000.