Simon Plumb is a journalist for the Herald on Sunday

Craig's 'breathtaking' $1.3m defamation damages could set New Zealand record, says legal expert

A Kiwi defamation expert says the $1.3 million in damages former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig has been ordered to pay Jordan Williams is "breathtaking" and could make legal history.

In what could end up being the largest sum ever paid in a Kiwi defamation case, Auckland University Associate Professor of Law Bill Hodge says yesterday's decision is a landmark moment.

Describing the $1.3m sum as incredible, Hodge predicts legal experts around the globe will be tracking the case - which he thinks is far from over.

"It's breathtaking, eye-watering and mind-boggling. These are all the adjectives I would use to describe the amount," Hodge said.

"It's like an American defamation case - seven figures. New Zealand decision makers and juries are modest in awarding damages.

Something in this jury trial attracted them to the case.

"Defamation lawyers and academics around the world will be following it closely."

The largest defamation award in this country was to former Auckland Trotting Club president Terry Quinn, who was awarded $1.5m against Television New Zealand.

However on appeal, the amount was reduced to $650,000 - meaning the Craig decision could yet become a new watermark.

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Hodge says he expects the Craig decision will also be appealed in a notoriously complex and expensive area of New Zealand law.

"There will be an appeal," Hodge said. "The legal issues are extremely significant because it's the equivalent of a self-defence response.

"It's a difficult area, defences in defamation particularly. It needs further examination as to the extent that someone can 'hit back'.

"My personal opinion is that the jury decided Craig went over the top with his response. He might have had a legitimate response if it was measured and in the appropriate form.

"It's a bit like he was slapped by Jordan and he pulled out an automatic weapon and fired all his shots."

Hodge, who has written a book on defamation, said the fallout from the case could be so wide-ranging it could even have a chilling effect on media.

"There could be a chilling effect. If I'm an editor and I'm looking at my energetic reporters who are out there investigating, I'm going to say 'just be careful'," he said.

"There could be chilling in the sense of taking a second look at things. Editorial judgments may err on the side of caution rather than a 'go for it' attitude."

The case was brought by Jordan Williams who took exception to comments made by Craig at a 2015 press conference and in a pamphlet he published called Dirty Politics and Hidden Agendas which was delivered to more than 1.6 million New Zealand households.

Craig claimed Williams had lied about him and was part of a smear campaign to push him out of the Conservative Party leadership.

The "false accusations" he alleged Williams spread were mainly around Craig's relationship with his former press secretary Rachel MacGregor, who quit suddenly two days before the 2014 general election.

A few weeks later MacGregor told Williams that she had made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission that Craig had sexually harassed her over a long period of her employment.

She shared letters and poems the politician sent her. Williams then revealed the details to other Conservative Party members.

Craig then named Williams in a group of "schemers" he said were responsible for a "plot" against him.

Williams then filed defamation proceedings in the High Court, saying he did not lie about Craig.

The booklet also contained allegations about Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater.

"It's big in legal history," Hodge said. "It's a complicated area of law and not many people would be able to afford the expenses from the get-go. It's a big thing to undertake and I'm sure Jordan would have been carefully advised before he launched that it was going to be a long and expensive process. And, it's not over."

- NZ Herald

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