Rare ‘apology’ ruling divides small NZ community

An unusual High Court ruling recommends a former school librarian and her husband send apology letters to members of a small South Island community to correct defamatory statements - or pay a fine of $100,000.

The defamatory statements were made in letters sent to around 50 Rai Valley residents after an employment dispute between the former librarian, Faye Leov, and former principal, Loretta [Muff] Newton, escalated to involve the local community.

The letters claimed Newton bullied Leov and others in the school, that she misled the school board, had been dismissed from her role and was mentally unwell.

The dispute arose over the management of a joint community and school library. The library, based on the school’s grounds, had a constitution described as “fatally flawed” by a lawyer later investigating its governance on behalf of the Ministry of Education.

Leov, the librarian, was answerable to the school principal as an employee, as well as to the library committee she was chairperson of. This arrangement caused problems when Newton became the school’s principal.

In his 92-page ruling, Justice Collins said Faye Leov was a strong-willed person, emotionally invested in the library and with views on how the library should be run. Newton, he said, was firm in her determination staff should comply with her instructions. The two women butted heads over a number of matters.

“Just going straight to the jugular and going for large damages is probably quite tempting. I think it takes quite a mature approach to say ‘Well actually I just want my reputation put right and I’m not interested in money to do that."

The dispute then spread beyond the school gates. Public meetings were held and both parties had supporters and critics. In her testimony, Leov said by 2007 she was having suicidal thoughts, and “was too frightened to answer the telephone, the door or open the mail, or even go outside into the garden”.

Leov’s employment was terminated by the school board in 2008. The board later issued a public apology acknowledging it did not deal with her allegations of unfair treatment effectively.

The defamatory letters were a result of a chance meeting Faye Leov and husband Bernard Leov had with writer Sue Dunn. The Leovs offered Dunn $27,000 to write a book about the employment dispute: The Faye Leov Story.

As part of the research for the book, letters were sent by Dunn canvassing Rai Valley residents to share their stories of Newton.

Rai Valley Area School. Photo: Supplied by Stuff

Justice Collins found thirteen of the passages in the letter contained defamatory allegations and while Dunn had written the letter, she had done so as an agent of the Leovs, with Faye Leov’s knowledge and encouragement.

Dunn has since apologised to Newton for the letters. The apology was accepted and Newton no longer wants to pursue a claim against her.

The Leovs, however, have not apologised and Newton is still seeking a written apology and correction.

University of Canterbury’s School of Law Dean, Professor Ursula Cheer, said the case was unusual because the plaintiff only wanted a correction, not damages.

In 1992 the ability to ask for a declaration, a retraction or a correction was included in the Defamation Act. Cheer said this was to “put the focus on to putting your reputation right rather than on to money as putting things right”.

Until last week, section 26 of the Defamation Act recommending a correction had never been used in a New Zealand court case.

Cheer commended the Newtons and their legal team.

The Leovs have one month to send the correction letters. If they don't, they will be fined $100,000.

“Just going straight to the jugular and going for large damages is probably quite tempting. I think it takes quite a mature approach to say ‘Well actually I just want my reputation put right and I’m not interested in money to do that. What I want is the apology and correction.’”

Justice Collins’ ruling, made after a nine-day trial which packed Blenheim’s courthouse with Rai Valley residents, recommends the Leovs send correction and apology letters to several residents of Rai Valley. Public notices are to be placed in two local newspapers. He even recommends the text of the letter.

The ruling is a recommendation, not an order.

The Leovs have one month to send the correction letters. If they don't, they will be fined $100,000.

Justice Collins said complying “may assist the rehabilitation that is desperately required in this case”.

This sentiment is echoed by the Newtons in a press release.

“We bear no ill will to Mr and Mrs Leov or their supporters and we hope that the judgment of the court will help heal any remaining divisions in our communities.”

The Newtons said the last 10 years had been difficult and they would like to close that chapter of their lives.

Closure hinges on the Leovs' response to Justice Collins’ ruling.

Their counsel, Christopher Griggs, said his clients were taking time to consider the ruling before deciding what to do.

“In the fullness of time either we will be appealing or we’ll be making a decision about whether to make a correction or not. There’s a number of different ways this could play out.

“They’re not very happy with it, obviously.”

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