News: Peters forces removal of name and comments from High Court ruling

NZ First leader Winston Peters has forced the High Court to remove comments about a speech he made in Parliament from a defamation judgment after raising constitutional arguments that could have far-reaching effects.

The judgment related to allegations about Christchurch earthquake advocate Bryan Staples by gang-linked debt collector Richard Freeman who was involved in intimidating Staples in 2014 over a disputed debt.

Freeman then provided material to Peters, who made comments about Staples in Parliament accusing him of being corrupt, a bully and a conman. Staples sued Freeman and TV3 over the remarks.

In Justice Jan-Marie Doogue’s original judgment, issued in June 2021, she awarded Staples $350,000 damages for the defamatory statements by Freeman who offered no defence and who was later adjudicated bankrupt.

Doogue has admitted she was wrong to use Peters’ speech in Parliament in assessing Freeman’s liability because the courts had no right to inquire or comment on Peters’ speech. Her revised judgment omits any reference to Peters.

In her original judgment Justice Doogue said Peters defamed Staples when he repeated the allegations in Parliament in July 2014 although Parliamentary privilege prevented any legal action against him.

She found that Freeman “actively encouraged Mr Peters to use absolute privilege to make allegations about Mr Staples”.

Most of the speech was broadcast on Mediaworks’ Campbell Live TV show, in an item Staples claimed was “shockingly bad, twisted and untrue”. The programme later ran a second item based on Peters’ claims.

“Mr Freeman is responsible for the harm caused by Mr Peter’s speech in Parliament and the first Campbell Live programme,” Justice Doogue’s first decision said.

The suit against Mediaworks remains unresolved.

Peters applied to have the decision recalled which Justice Doogue agreed to do, noting certain issues needed further argument.

In a hearing on the papers she considered what was covered by the ban on “questioning” of “proceedings of Parliament” in the Parliamentary Privilege Act 2014 and whether the material provided to Peters was protected by Parliamentary privilege.

She ruled the provision of information by Freeman to Peters was a proceeding in Parliament because “there is evidence that Mr Peters sought the information in question and did so for Parliamentary purposes”. The supply of information was therefore covered by Parliamentary privilege.

Turning to how the court could use Peters’ speech in the defamation proceeding, Justice Doogue said a court could not call the speech’s truthfulness or lawfulness into question, even by way of comment. Neither could it question Peters’ motives, intentions or good faith or use it to impose liability on Freeman and quantify damages.

“The result is that no aspect of the claim connected to Mr Peters and his speech in the House can be taken into account in assessing Freeman’s liability.

“Parliamentary privilege means the court has no jurisdiction to inquire into or assess damages arising as a consequence of the provision of the information such as the impact of Mr Peters’ speech and the coverage of that speech on Campbell Live.”

The judge reduced the damages from $350,000 to $120,000 and ordered Peters’ legal costs to be paid by Staples.

Peters said in a statement he was pleased a “gross miscarriage of justice” had been corrected.

“Parliamentary privilege is the cornerstone of our democracy and the Court has reaffirmed that.”

Peters said the judge had recalled passages that challenged his personal right to exercise free speech “particularly when in this case I was not even given the opportunity to be heard or defend myself”.

“The Court noted in the ruling that the principle of freedom of speech that underpins the Parliamentary Privilege Act 2014 can be traced to the Bill of Rights 1688, which states, ‘That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament’.”

Staples owned Claims Resolution Service (CRS), a business which pursued earthquake insurance settlements on a “no-win, no-fee” basis.

His troubles began when CRS refused to pay Malcolm Gibson for $170,000 of invoiced work after discovering he was not the highly qualified quantity surveyor he claimed to be. Staples said the work done by Gibson’s company was left with no commercial value to CRS.

When he was not paid, Gibson then sold the $170,000 debt to debt collection business Ironclad Securities for $1. Staples said he considered the move a form of vengeance.

Freeman was a co-director and co-owner of Ironclad Securities Ltd along with Lyndon Richardson, then a senior Head Hunters gang member.