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Court Action Costs Mounting For Parliamentary Whitleblower

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Auckland, Oct 16 NZPA - Parliamentary whistleblower Erin Leigh is facing possible court costs of $4132 following a pre-trial hearing into her defamation case against the Attorney-General over comments by former Labour cabinet minister Trevor Mallard in the House.

In July, Justice Andrew Dobson ruled that a ministerial briefing paper about her to Mr Mallard, who then criticised her in the House, was not defamatory.

In a recent decision, Justice Dobson said that the Attorney-General had been largely successful in the hearing and fixed his costs at two-thirds of $6680.

However, he did not order Ms Leigh to pay the money immediately, at her request, as his judgment is currently under appeal.

Mr Mallard, the former Labour Minister for the Environment, questioned Ms Leigh's competence when asked about the circumstances of her departure as ministry communications adviser on climate change issues.

Anything said in the House carries absolute privilege, meaning MPs can say whatever they like without fear of being sued for defamation.

So Ms Leigh turned her attention on the ministry itself, in the form of the Attorney-General, and the man who gave Mr Mallard the seven-paragraph briefing note, deputy secretary Lindsay Gow.

Ms Leigh had gone public with claims that the appointment of Labour activist, Clare Curran, now a Labour MP, as communications adviser to oversee the work she was involved with was politically motivated.

In answering questions on the matter in Parliament, Mr Mallard pulled few punches.

Now Ms Leigh is suing for defamation and negligent misstatement.

She said she was defamed by Mr Gow in the briefing paper and also in discussions between him and the minister the same day in November 2007.

However, in the pre-trial hearing in the High Court at Wellington, Justice Dobson said that the briefing paper was not capable of the defamatory meanings claimed by Ms Leigh.

But he ruled, provisionally, that all but one of the alleged oral statements, if proved, could possibly bear the defamatory meanings alleged.

Ms Leigh was working on a number of successive drafts of the climate change communications strategy for the ministry in May 2006.

When she was told that Ms Curran had been hired to oversee the content of the communications strategy she had been working on, she quit the contract immediately.

Some 18 months later, in November 2007, criticism was levelled at the Labour Government over the circumstances of Ms Curran being hired.

When approached by a reporter, Ms Leigh confirmed that she viewed Ms Curran's appointment as politically inspired.

The interview led to questions in the House and the briefing paper for Mr Mallard outlining the circumstances of her departure from the post.

Ms Leigh asserted that the briefing paper was used by Mr Mallard to criticise her competence in response to MPs' questions.

But having read the briefing paper, the judge said that none of the alleged defamatory meanings was made out.

In December that year, before his resignation, Environment Ministry chief executive Hugh Logan apologised for the briefing paper.

However, the judge said Mr Logan's acknowledgement did not affect the legal test he, as judge, was bound to apply as to whether it could be seen as defamatory.

The judge rejected a claim for negligent misstatement.

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