Herald on Sunday editorial: Powerful, rich - and vulnerable

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In the Family Court this week, Judge David Burns ordered that the man's identity be indefinitely suppressed. Photo / File
In the Family Court this week, Judge David Burns ordered that the man's identity be indefinitely suppressed. Photo / File

He is one of the wealthiest men in New Zealand. He supports MPs who changed the law to expressly state that a defendant's public profile should not, of itself, be grounds for keeping his identity secret.

And, in an acrimonious, multi-million dollar marriage break-up, this man was alleged to have grabbed or touched his wife's neck, and admitted trying to kick in the door of their home and shouting abuse at her.

But in the Family Court this week, Judge David Burns ordered that the man's identity be indefinitely suppressed - that anyone who even whispers at his identity be liable to three months' imprisonment or a $2,000 fine.

Why? It is because his Queen's Counsel, Lady Deborah Chambers, used a clause in the Family Courts Act to have him categorised as a "vulnerable person", as both he and his wife had unsuccessfully sought protection orders against each other at the height of the drawn-out, torrid break-up.

The man claimed his ex-wife was "stalking" him, and had threatened to take one of their dogs. Even the dogs have been granted name suppression, in this society drama.

Judge Burns had previously refuted the stalking allegation as "weak", and rejected the threat to take the dog as "out of character", saying there was no suggestion the ex-wife was a violent person."

Yet, despite rejecting the man's application for a domestic violence protection order, Judge Burns this week ruled that the mere fact the husband had asked for a protection order was enough to classify him as vulnerable and, therefore, entitle him to ongoing name suppression.

If a person's application for protection from domestic violence is so weak that it is refused by the court, how can that same court decide that the same application is strong enough grounds to declare one of New Zealand's most powerful men a vulnerable person? That this man is too fragile to withstand public scrutiny of his actions, to be held to public account?

This is a man who, by the judge's admission, is not vulnerable in a psychological sense. "He is a public figure used to being in the media spotlight ... He is a robust public person."

The man's estranged wife - whose health problems might have given her a far greater claim than him on the title "vulnerable" - quite properly refused to accept that get-out-of-jail-free card.

She took legal advice from her own QC, Grant Illingworth, and decided she wanted the freedom to speak openly to her friends and, yes, the media about her marriage and the unpleasant way in which it ended.

"She says that this will be therapeutic for her if she can get things off her chest," the judge found. "She considers that she is not a vulnerable person and does not seek to take advantage."

Queen's Counsel Deborah Chambers is the go-to divorce lawyer of the wealthy - she has acted in splits including that of Rich Listers Ken and Robyn Millar, and Craig and Katherine Heatley.

In this case, she has used a legal clause that will enable any person to stop their dirty linen being aired in public, by applying for a protection order, whatever the grounds.

To her client, Chambers is worth every cent of her fee.

The public may feel less indebted.

This decision returns the Family Court to the dark days when open justice was sacrificed to protect the rich and powerful.

- Herald on Sunday

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