National MP Nick Smith was today found guilty of contempt of court - a verdict which leaves his future in Parliament up in the air.

Mr Smith and media organisations Radio New Zealand TV3 were found to be in contempt after publicising details of a Family Court Court case in which a couple lost custody of their child.

Under New Zealand law, Family Court proceedings are not open to the public and media can only report cases with specific approval from the judge.


In a reserved decision released by the High Court today following a five-day trial last month, Justices Wild and MacKenzie said the issues of penalties and costs were "for further submission and decision".

They said they were satisfied beyond doubt that Dr Smith intended to influence the Family Court's decision.

"Unmistakably, he sought to bring about the return of custody of the child to the parents, his constituents.

The judges said that they believed that Dr Smith tried to make the child's caregiver forego her rights through his conversation with her and through media pressure.

They also said Dr Smith tried to lessen the validity of the decision in the eyes of the public.

Dr Smith "usurped" the court's role by making his own inquiries into the case, and publicising details in media releases, the judges said.

"He left the court and the public in no doubt that the child should be in the parents' custody," they said in their findings.

"Comments such as Dr Smith made are apt to undermine public confidence in the court's decision, whichever way the judge decides."


His actions could cause prospective litigants with family problems to question whether they could safely entrust their dispute to the Family Court, assured that it would be dealt with competently and not discussed in detail through the media, the judges said.

Contempt of court is not a statutory crime and has no sentencing minimums or maximums in law.

There are differing legal opinions on the consequences for Dr Smith.

Dr Smith's lawyer, John Upton QC, told the court in his closing submissions last month that Dr Smith's involvement prevented a father absconding with his child and ensured the case was heard by the Family Court.

Mr Upton also said at the time that Dr Smith's comments on the case, even if they breached Family Court confidentiality rules, could not amount to the serious offence of contempt of court.

However, it was an extreme case that had required extreme measures, and was unlikely to happen again, he said.

"Dr Smith's conduct was the antithesis of contempt. Not only did he dissuade the parents from not going to court, he positively encouraged them (to go)."

Radio NZ and TV3 were also found guilty of contempt for reporting the details of the case.

Commenting on TV3's role in the case, Justices Wild and MacKenzie said that their overall impression of the 20/20 programme Tug of Law, was that it was "one-sided".

"We think that TV3 intended that the programme place pressure on the caregiver."

For TV3, lawyer Clare Bradley had argued in court that a conviction would curtail freedom of speech and the freedom of the media.

In broadcasting its programme, TV3 was scrutinising an exceptional case in the public interest, she said. It had ensured the individuals involved could not be identified.

RNZ had already broadcast details of the case so TV3 thought that opened the way for its coverage.

There was no evidence that the TV3 programme had influenced the Family Court or that it had deterred people from taking their cases to the court, she said.

The judges considered part of Linda Clark's April 28 interview with Dr Smith on the Nine to Noon programme constituted a contempt of court.

They were especially concerned that Clark made no attempt to steer the mother or Dr Smith away from commenting on the facts of the case, and they took "a particularly dim view" of the naming of the child during the interview.

For RNZ, lawyer John Tizard earlier told the court it was legitimate for the broadcaster to raise public concerns about the case. There would have been no contempt charges if it had raised concerns about a criminal case.

Also appearing for RNZ, lawyer Sandra Moran said during the trial the fact that Principal Family Court Judge Patrick Mahony chose to be interviewed showed the case raised significant issues.

There was no suggestion that Radio New Zealand's broadcasts had any influence on the participants in the case, she argued.