Defence Force spent $75k on defamation case

Jon Stephenson. Photo / NZ Herald
Jon Stephenson. Photo / NZ Herald

The New Zealand Defence Force spent more than $75,000 defending itself against the defamation case by investigative journalist Jon Stephenson.

Figures released by the NZDF under the Official Information Act show as of September 6, the Crown Law costs for the case were $76,165.

Stephenson was seeking $500,000 and costs from Lieutenant General Rhys Jones in the High Court at Wellington in July.

He was suing General Jones for defamation over a Defence Force statement about articles written by Stephenson in 2010 and 2011.

One of the articles, which featured in Metro Magazine in 2011, described how SAS soldiers transferred Afghan detainees to authorities who tortured them.

A statement issued by General Jones in response denied Stephenson had performed an interview with the commander of a crisis response unit in Afghanistan.

It also stated he had never entered the base where the meeting took place.

Three articles written by Stephenson had been based on the interview.

The jury could not reach a verdict at the High Court, however Stephenson claimed a moral victory when General Jones' lawyer Hugh Rennie QC said the general accepted the journalist had entered the base and conducted the interview.

Stephenson said the trial had cost a "considerable'' amount of money to bring the case to court but he would not say whether others had sponsored him.

He has not yet confirmed whether he will seek a retrial or negotiate a settlement with the Defence Force to avoid one.

Wellington media lawyer Steven Price said the $76,000 fee struck him as quite low for a week-long case.

"I mean, Hugh Rennie [QC] was arguing that and presumably being paid by the Defence Force. I don't know what his charge out rate is, but I'd imagine something like $500 an hour.

"You're talking about six to eight hours in court plus whatever preparation time around that, plus all the time building up to it which is more weeks of work, so $75,000 seems extremely modest.''

Auckland defamation and media lawyer Julian Miles QC agreed the Crown Law fee sounded "very light''.

"On a high profile case which lasted a week, normally there would be preliminary arguments over issues before it gets to trial. I would expect legal costs to be significantly over $75,000, maybe double that.''

NZDF declined to provide details of the amount of hours spent on the Stephenson defamation case or copies of any briefings to the Minister of Defence about the legal action.

Stephenson could not be reached for comment.

The Crown Law costs pale in comparison to those racked up by the Government battling Kim Dotcom.

Lawyers working for the taxpayer have spent almost 10,000 legal hours against the internet tycoon. At senior counsel charge-out rates, the cost in lawyers alone would be almost $2 million.

Mr Rennie did not come under the Crown Law budget, the Defence Force said.

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