Summary: Hagamans v Little

Asher Emanuel has good coverage of the Hagaman v Little defamation proceedings in Watching the Hagaman-Little defamation trial, it felt like everybody lost.

It does feel like a lose-lose, except for the lawyers who won some big fees.

Emanuel concludes:

This is only the latest unseemly defamation parade of which New Zealand has had a few. Do you remember when Jordan Williams sued Colin Craig for defamation, won, and was awarded $1.27 million in damages?

That was a ridiculously high award. I presume that is still to be challenged on appeal.

Williams (who showed up to the Little verdict, spectator this time) is the director of an organisation founded on the idea that waste of public funds is immoral, and surely it is, but are these private wastes any more defensible? Are these really reputations worth protecting with bonfires of money?

In litigation, two sides tell two stories from which a judge or jury tries to piece together the truth. So Lani Hagaman told the jury she did not intend to bankrupt Little; that this was not about humiliating him. It wasn’t even about the money because they would give the award to charity. It was, she said, about dignity for Earl before he dies.

Earl did not get his dignity, if that’s what you could call it. And Little has escaped financial ruin, at least for today.

We will find out in about six months whether it has helped ruin Little’s chances of upgrading from Leader of the Opposition to Leader of the Country.

Andrew Geddis also covers it well in In qualified praise of the Andrew Little defamation verdict. He says:

“The defamation case against Andrew Little did not result in his having to pay any damages. All in all, I think that is a good thing for the country as a whole.

I agree. The $2 million+ claim by the Hagamans was far too high and I think a tactical mistake as well.

So Andrew Little is absolutely right when he says he had a “constitutional obligation” to make a song and dance about the issue. As leader of the opposition, it is his job to “speak out fearlessly” on matters like this – not simply because he wants to take the PM’s job for himself, but rather because the whole system of governing accountability and clean public processes depends upon him (and other opposition MPs) doing so.

I agree generally with this, but I don’t think Little handled it well, either initially or for months afterwards. He could have easily made the point without getting dragged into court.

Of course, when it turns out that the claim is wrong and that actually there was no untoward relationship between the donation and the subsequent contracting decisions, the use of this sort of language leaves egg on their maker’s face. His (or her) political judgment can and should be questioned.

And the maker really ought to put their hand up, say they got it wrong, and apologise for any wrong imputations (as Andrew Little eventually did – a bit too late, in my opinion, but there you are.)

I agree with this too. See my next post which suggests how Little could have done it effectively without the risks.

Geddis concludes:

But saying all that … yes, the bullet must be bitten. Insofar as there is any tradeoff between public accountability and private reputational interests, my sympathies lie with the former. And so I’m happy that Andrew Little walked out of court without any liability for his statements on this matter.

Yeah, but Little went too far, either deliberately causing (his initial language suggests at least a bit of this) or not caring about collateral damage (if we are to believe his claims his sole target was the Government and not Earl Hagaman and Scenic Circle).

RNZ interview: Law professor discusses Andrew Little defamation case

The dean of the University of Canterbury Law School, Ursula Cheer, analyses the outcome of the defamation case against Andrew Little. “This has turned out to be the most complicated case I’ve seen in defamation in a while.”

A case that the jury couldn’t deal with. One of the primary problems was the arguments had little guidance from previous court cases, appeals or precedents.

Guyon Espiner: So in terms of what we learnt from this and what it may set down, It’s another small step for the protection to discuss these matters of public interest, but perhaps also less protection for those possibly for those who get caught up in the collateral damage this.

Ursula Cheer: I think it doesn’t tell us a great deal actually that we haven’t already built up from other various High Court cases.

And the defence is still developing, we’re still waiting for a higher court like the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court to look back over all the cases and say yes, we have it and it looks like this, and this is what ill will looks like and so on.

We’re still waiting for that which is partly why this case was so complicated.

And also because this was a jury decision, and jury decisions are about the facts, so it doesn’t really tell us much more about that in relation to other cases.

Guyon Espiner: So why do you think they had such a struggle with whether he was entitled to use qualified privilege if that is accepted and established?

Ursula Cheer: Well I think the evidence was borderline and it was a case of them looking at the evidence to see what Andrew Little had done in order to be responsible enough, in order not to be seen as motivated by ill will.

There can be a fine line in politics between holding to account and wishing ill will on opponents – the more illness one can associated with an opponent the greater ones chances of succeeding and winning in politics.

Ursula Cheer: But another part of that is if a person takes advantage of their opportunity to publish, in other words if they are reckless or even careless about whether the matter is true or not.

And that depends very much on the facts, and here it just wasn’t black or white.

The words were not so bad that you could say well that means there was ill will.

And then you’ve got, there was plenty of evidence in the case of Andrew Little’s genuineness.

That was in court nearly a year after it started. It is difficult now to judge how genuine Little was about wishing no ill will on the Hagamans last year, especially taking into account his refusal to qualify his accusations or offer an apology for most of the year.

Ursula Cheer: I think they just struggled with weighing that evidence up and seeing if the legal definition fitted what existed in this case.

As a result the outcome so far is quite unclear, legally and politically.

It is likely to have been difficult for some at least of the twelve jurors to put aside completely any political preferences.

When you see polarised political and legal positions in comments here, and more starkly the difference between comments on Kiwiblog (see Little wins) versus The Standard (see A basic primer on the law of defamation), it was hard to escape the political biases and potential ramifications.

Claire Trevett at NZ Herald: Andrew Little defamation trial a win for future Opposition leaders – and the lawyers

“This case is not about politics,” Earl and Lani Hagaman’s lawyer Richard Fowler said on the first day of the hoteliers’ defamation trial against Labour leader Andrew Little.

It was a rather optimistic plea in a case which was always going to be about politics.

With both sides trying to show political motivation on the part of the other, it was not so much a case of wrong and right as left and right, of political power versus personal wealth.

Yes. Political leanings ideologies were prominent in public discussions on the case, and I can imagine that personal political preferences could have had some influence in the jury room.

The jury sat impassive and infuriatingly inscrutable through most the trial, scrabbling their way through screeds of files.

When they were sent to make their decision, they were asked not to let either personal or political sympathies affect their decisions.

The reason for the inscrutable faces became clear when the string of decisions was read out – the jury found Lani Hagaman was not defamed at all, but was unable to decide on almost all of the claims by Earl Hagaman.

In the one case it did find defamation, it was unable to decide whether Little had acted in abuse of the ‘qualified privilege’ he had claimed so no damages were awarded.

As is often the case in such matters, the only winners in monetary terms were the lawyers.

It should be remembered that most people do not have anywhere near the financial resources to attempt defamation proceedings.

The other winners in the case were future Leaders of the Opposition.

Little’s present to them was Justice Karen Clark’s ruling that as Leader of the Opposition he met the criteria for the defence of qualified privilege.

The ruling acknowledges Little had a moral or legal duty to make the statements he had, in the course of holding the Government to account. It offers some protection in defamation suits, unless the person claiming it was motivated by ill-will or otherwise abused the privilege.

I don’t think the outcome as it is at the moment will have helped much, it is still unclear where the legal boundaries are.

But even if this case doesn’t go to another trial or to appeal Little and other politicians should have been able to learn something from this expensive and inconclusive exercise.

I offer some suggestions in the next post: Avoiding defamation: lessons for Little


  1. Blazer

     /  12th April 2017

    the sentiments Little expressed ,that brought the action,are the natural sentiments,of the average Kiwi ,battling stiff.Thats the…. reality.

    • No, it’s the sentiments expressed by the average commenter left at The Standard, which is a long way from the average New Zealander.

      • Blazer

         /  12th April 2017

        disagree totally,if you presented that scenario=A donated X amount of money to Y,and then Y gave him a contract worth Z,the average ,simple deduction is glaringly…obvious.

        • No it’s not. That’s a dirty political insinuation.

          • Blazer

             /  12th April 2017

            Sorry but it is,does not need to be a political example…any scenario will do.People understand…quid pro quo.,reciprocity,…call it whatever.Altruism!ha.

            • Without any evidence of impropriety it’s a dirty insinuation, political or not.

            • Blazer

               /  12th April 2017

              @PG…what exactly is a dirty insinuation?

            • An insinuation of corruption with no evidence to substantiate it.

            • Anonymous Coward

               /  12th April 2017

              “dirty” is a VERY loaded word the way you use it Pete.

            • Blazer

               /  12th April 2017

              be specific,you should understand I have presented theoretical scenarios to prove a point.

            • Anonymous Coward

               /  12th April 2017

              Who was it the revealed the donation? Was it reporters or Andrew Little?
              As I understand it he was asked for his opinion of the revelation, to which he said “it stinks…”. For it to have been a dirty insinuation he would have to be the one making the link.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  12th April 2017

              Anyone with a computer can look up what political donations have been made and by whom. I have just done so-or would have done had it not taken so long to open itself. It hardly took great detective skills.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  12th April 2017

    Geddis saying Little apologized a bit too late is simply fatuous.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  12th April 2017

      It’s true, he did leave it far too long.Any apology so long after the insult looks like trying to escape consequences.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  12th April 2017

    Basically the law is now saying if you are slandered by a politician your only recourse is to slander right back as hard as you can.

    • Anonymous Coward

       /  12th April 2017

      If by ‘now’ you mean ‘since 1992’…

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  12th April 2017

        I think this judgement has extended it and certainly hardened it.

        • Anonymous Coward

           /  12th April 2017

          Except that, as the jury couldn’t decide, It Didn’t.

      • The situation in this case is notably different from Lange v Atkinson.

        The key here, not covered by previous rulings, is when a private person is ‘collateral damage’.

        Did Little mean to also attack Earl Hagaman and Scenic Circle? Many ordinary New Zealanders are likely to have got that impression. And more than 3 jurors too.

        • Anonymous Coward

           /  12th April 2017

          I meant the 1992 act.

          • There is insufficient case law to clarify how that should work in practice. Cheer made that clear.

            • Blazer

               /  12th April 2017

              Someone once said..’the Law is an ..Ass’….and it often brays and defecates all over…the place.

            • With this there have been too few cases, especially going to appeal, to establish where the legal lines are drawn with qualified privilege.

            • Anonymous Coward

               /  12th April 2017

              Colin Craig had qualified privilege.

            • Quite a different situation though – he was claiming fair response to an attack on him.

            • And it’s untested at appeal level.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  12th April 2017

              No, Blazer, the correct quotation from Oliver Twist is ‘the law is a ass-a idiot.’ It was said by Mr Bumble who was an ignorant man and unaware that nouns that start with vowels take ‘an’. It is one one of the most misquoted quotes ever, and to put the correct article in means that much of the point is lost. Mr Bumble has just been told that he is liable for his wife’s crime, as the eye of the law supposes that his wife has acted under his direction (thus he will be charged with and punished for a crime that, he had no part in) He’s such a vile person that it’s hard to have too much sympathy for him, I must admit.

            • Anonymous Coward

               /  12th April 2017

              The world has overtaken you Kitty

  4. “the idea that waste of public funds is immoral, and surely it is, but are these private wastes any more defensible?” Absolutely. No question. If the writer can’t see the difference in such a basic issue it negates any of their subsequent arguments.

  5. Little said it outside the House. The enquiry found no substance to the claim. He did not immediately recant. He belatedly issued a Clay tons apology. The fact that 12 jurors couldn’t agree just underlines the old adage that the law is an ass.

  6. Little’s biggest error of judgment was releasing his final attempt at an apology to the media, rather than making a direct approach to Mr and Mrs Hagaman. An apology by proxy will always be viewed as less than sincere.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  12th April 2017

      Quote, not adage, it’s from Oliver Twist and the original is that the law is A ass, A idiot, not generally but in a particular context-and it’s not Dickens who said it, it’s a character.

      But when AL was told that there was no truth in his claim (and really, he has been in politics long enough to know how improbable it would be that there was) he did nothing.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  12th April 2017

        Wrong place for the above reply.

        He would have done far better to have made the apology in private and then made what he said public in a summary.

  7. duperez

     /  12th April 2017

    “It felt like everybody lost.”
    The biggest group in the losing lot may just be those who have been denied their visit to the gallows. Their fun denied they will have to be content with Easter.

  8. Zedd

     /  12th April 2017

    Large donation given to Natz (in Govt) & business contract awarded to donor.. must be a coincidence (NOT) Come on people, this is the money first & last party, were talking about !

    almost as believable as the infamous “I tried it but didn’t inhale.. man” 😀

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  12th April 2017

      You just don’t/wont get it for some unknown reason.

      $100,000 is not that large a donation, and even if the government was corrupt, it wouldn’t be it for that amount.

      • Anonymous Coward

         /  12th April 2017

        If it’s not that large then explain how it was the largest.

        • High Flying Duck

           /  12th April 2017

          Hmmm. It was large by NZ standards, but certainly not unusually so. In the 2014 election alone:

          Kim Dotcom gave millions to the Internet Party
          L & K Day gave well over $1m to the Conservatives
          B Plested gave $100k to the Maori Party
          Rorohara Farms gave $110,000 to the Maori Party
          Est Cyril Smith gave $500k to National
          Engineering Union gave $60k to Labour
          Dairy Workers Union $40k to Labour
          Philip Mills gave $65K to Labour and $60k to the Greens
          Alan Gibbs $100k to ACT

          I think what Kitty was saying was that the amount was nowhere near an amount you would need to procure a corruptly favourable decision. Especially given National were well funded and raking in the donations at the time with little problem.

  9. The real failure rests with the Judges inability to explain in simple terms to the Jury the meaning and extent of “qualified privilege”. The Jury are the judge of facts in the case based on the evidence presented, and the guidance of the Judge. The matter should be appealed n the interests of clarity of the law so that Justice is seen to be done for both sides, and the boundaries of privilege are made clear to all.