10 Apr 2017

Little 'very pleased' no damages awarded in defamation case

9:25 pm on 10 April 2017

A jury has cleared Labour leader Andrew Little of defaming Lani Hagaman and has been unable to reach a decision over Earl Hagaman's claims.

Andrew Little

Andrew Little (file photo) Photo: RNZ

The couple, who own Scenic Hotel Group, sued Mr Little in the High Court in Wellington.

They said he had defamed them in statements linking a resort deal awarded to their company with a large donation they made to the National Party in 2014.

Mr Little argued he was just doing his duty as Leader of the Opposition in holding the government to account.

The jury found one of Mr Little's statements about Mr Hagaman was defamatory, but was unable to decide if he acted with ill will and was therefore not protected by qualified privilege as a politician. As a result, it did not get to the point of considering damages.

It could not reach majority decisions about the meaning of the words in four other statements about the deal, including Mr Little's initial press release.

It found a sixth statement was not defamatory.

Listen to RNZ political editor Jane Patterson explain today's decision:

Justice Clark spoke with jurors earlier today and gave them directions for what was required to reach a majority verdict.

At least nine members of the 12-person jury needed to be in agreement for majority verdicts to be entered.

Hagamans to consider whether to return to court

Mrs Hagaman spoke to reporters outside the court following the verdicts, saying she would consider whether to carry on the legal fight.

Lani Hagaman talks to media after the verdict is returned.

Lani Hagaman talks to media after the verdicts. Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

"I came to this court to restore my husband's reputation, which was damaged by Andrew Little's actions," she said.

"Possibly the jury has found it difficult to deal with the technicalities of defamation law, even though Andrew Little has recently apologised and offered compensation, all of which in my view took far too long to be offered."

Mr Little told reporters he respected the jury's decision.

"I'm very pleased that no damages have been awarded, and that the qualified privilege, that the judge ruled that I had, has not been displaced as a result of the jury's findings.

"The disappointment is that we spent six days in the High Court and not a lot has changed, and certainly I'll stand by the efforts I made to resolve this issue without it having to go to court, but the decision is there and that's what we now have to live with."

Case has been stressful - Little

The case - in which the Hagamans sought up to $2.3 million - had been stressful, he said.

"These things are ordinarily stressful, I know that from being a lawyer myself... I think I handled it pretty well.

"It's always stressful when you are up for a court hearing that could lead to a judgment of $2.3m against you.

"I don't have assets worth $2.3m, I don't have a line of credit worth $2.3m. Had that award been made then, yes, I would have to work hard to get that.

"I probably would have been busking at the bottom of Lambton Quay."

He said what happened now was in the hands of the Hagamans.