Legal

Judge to Peters: Answer the questions

Court documents have confirmed New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was sent a letter by officials four years into his seven-year overpayment of national superannuation asking him to check details he had supplied, including that he was 'single'.

He continued to receive the higher rate of superannuation for 'single, shared accommodation' rather than his actual 'de facto relationship' for three further years.

In answer to questions by Crown lawyers in a case brought by the Deputy Prime Minister to prove departments and two former ministers breached his privacy by sharing in 2017 information on his overpayment, Peters says he does not recall receiving the letter "but I do not doubt I would have received it".

Peters had to repay around $18,000 to the ministry after the overpayment came to light months before the 2017 election, when his partner applied for her own superannuation. An unknown whistleblower alerted media but Peters announced the overpayment himself before the news could break.

The question and answer over the March 2014 letter asking him to check what he had told MSD in 2010 is included in a new judgment in the case, dealing with a Crown request for the court to order Peters to give answers.

'Soper to give evidence for Peters' - click here to read

Chief High Court Justice Geoffrey Venning has now ordered Peters to supply answers by Friday to several questions he had not adequately addressed. 

He also ordered Peters to pay "modest" costs over this round of the case. "It has to be remembered that the application is against the background of a failure to provide answers in the form required by the rules initially."

While the judge did not make Peters give further answers over his filling out and initialling of the original superannuation application from 2010, or specify for how many years before then he had been in his de facto relationship, he did order more information from the MP.

For example, the judge found Peters' answer to the Crown lawyers' question of "As at March 18, 2014, were you living with Ms Janet Trotman in a de facto relationship?" was "general in the extreme" and "is to be answered".

He also had failed to answer the Crown's question on whether he had contacted MSD after the 2014 letter. Justice Venning ruled: "The applicant is entitled to a clear answer as to whether Mr Peters did contact MSD in response to the letter. The interrogatory is to be answered."

Further, Peters had not answered if he told MSD officials at their office in Ellerslie on July 26, 2017, that his claim on his original superannuation application that he was 'single' was incorrect. "The question is to be answered," the judge said.

Peters had not answered a question over whether at that meeting "you agreed that you were not and had never been, entitled to receive National Superannuation at the rate you had been receiving it (the 'single, sharing accommodation') rate." The judge said he must now answer.

The NZ First leader had also not answered a direct question of "who disclosed the issue of the overpayment of New Zealand Superannuation to you to the media?" Justice Venning said: "The question requires an answer. If the answer is the plaintiff does not know, then that should be recorded. The question is to be answered."

[One answer to that question is that Peters himself, in a press release, revealed to media he had been overpaid in error and had sorted the matter with MSD.]

The issues of Peters' deficient answers were aired at a High Court hearing last Friday. Peters' lawyer Brian Henry argued his client had either answered the questions in his broad narrative on the case or should not need to answer for a range of reasons. 

One of the key issues for the full hearing, due to start on November 4, will be Peters' questioning of the use in his case of the 'no surprises' policy under which successive governments have required public servants to advise ministers of issues which could become of public interest.

Peters was a minister in Helen Clark's government, and now in the Jacinda Ardern administration, and would have operated under the no surprises regime with his ministries.

He declined to answer a question on when he, as a minister, had received material or information under the no surprises policy, telling Crown lawyers it would be "oppressive to answer this question as the time period goes back to 1990".

In this instance, Justice Venning agreed with Peters. "The issue is whether the disclosure [of Peters' super information] was justified in this case. To the extent it may require going back in time to 1990, it is also oppressive. The question need not be answered."

Another, related question, of how many times Peters "had refused to receive a briefing under the no surprises policy from a chief executive or official" did need to be answered as it had received an inadequate answer from the politician.

Peters' lawyer Brian Henry had tried to argue that "there are no clear instances where the plaintiff had been involved in the rejection of a 'no surprises' disclosure that spring to the plaintiff's mind." The judge said it must be answered directly.

Peters was also excused from answering some questions about media coverage of the case and some other questions on the basis of legal professional privilege.

Defendants in the case are the former Minister of State Services, Paula Bennett, the former Minister of Social Development, Anne Tolley, the State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, the Attorney General on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development, and the chief executive of the ministry, Brendan Boyle.

Taxpayers are meeting the costs for all of those parties in the Peters' action, which has been going for nearly two years.

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