Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Legal experts doubt Craig can win

Conservative leader's action against Greens co-leader seen as expensive exercise that will not be successful.

Colin Craig's seven previous complaints have been against media organisations, individuals and a satirical news website. Photo / APN
Colin Craig's seven previous complaints have been against media organisations, individuals and a satirical news website. Photo / APN

Defamation experts say Conservative Party leader Colin Craig has little chance of winning a case against Greens co-leader Russel Norman, despite his track record of getting retractions or apologies in previous cases.

But the Green Party could face large legal bills, possibly covered by the taxpayer, if the case goes to court - even if Dr Norman wins.

Mr Craig said that if Dr Norman did not apologise for comments he made at the Big Gay Out by 5pm on Friday, he would seek a declaration under the Defamation Act that the statements were false and offensive. He was not seeking damages.

The Greens co-leader said during a speech that Mr Craig "thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen and a gay man's place is in the closet".

Labour deputy leader and lawyer David Parker has offered to represent Dr Norman if the case goes to court, but the Greens have hired barrister and defamation expert Steven Price.

Mr Price said in a letter to Mr Craig's lawyers that any action would be vigorously defended.

He said Dr Norman's comments were not made to be taken literally and should be interpreted as a "colloquial suggestion" that Mr Craig's attitudes towards women and gay people were outdated and disrespectful.

Mr Craig's seven previous complaints have been against media organisations, individuals and a satirical news website, all of which have issued a retraction, apology, or given the Conservative Party leader a right of reply.

To get a declaration from Dr Norman, Mr Craig's legal team would have to prove the comments were false and that they were likely to lower him in the minds of ordinary New Zealanders.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.


Head of government and regulatory practice at Kensington Swan, Hayden Wilson, said that to call someone homophobic and sexist could be considered defamatory. But he said there was a higher legal test for politicians or aspiring politicians and Mr Craig's case was marginal.

University of Canterbury law professor Ursula Cheer said it wouldn't matter if Mr Craig had not explicitly referred to a woman's place in the kitchen; the court would look at what an ordinary person would take Dr Norman's comments to mean and if they matched what Mr Craig had said previously.

If the case went ahead, Mr Craig could be asked to disclose all his previous comments on women and gays, possibly including personal emails.

Lawyers said that if a defamation case made it to court, a typical trial lasted three days and cost at least $75,000. The defendant or plaintiff rarely had all their costs covered if they won, unless a judge ruled that a case had been brought improperly or vindictively.

A Greens spokesman said Mr Price's initial legal advice would probably be paid for out of Dr Norman's office budget, but it hadn't been decided how to fund any future costs.

There was no risk to Dr Norman's job if he lost because it was a civil case.

Legal action
*Ben Uffindell/The Civilian: Mr Craig wanted a retraction and $500 for a satirical article on Mr Uffindell's blog. He gave an apology and clarification.
*TVNZ/Seven Sharp: Aired apology after Mr Craig complained to the Broadcasting Standards Authority about being lampooned in a skit.
*Joshua Drummond/Fairfax: Waikato Times and other Fairfax publications issued apology and correction after Drummond's satirical column said Mr Craig opposed gay marriage on religious grounds.
*Steve Braunias/Fairfax: Mr Craig twice complained about Braunias' satirical Secret Diary of ... fictional account of Mr Craig's week. Mr Craig says he got apologies both times.

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- NZ Herald

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