Legal

Peters must pay Crown $317k in failed privacy case

Winston Peters lost his high-profile privacy case against public servants and political opponents and now he is ordered to pay the Crown $317,000.  Tim Murphy reports

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters must pay the Crown $317,818 in legal costs connected to his failed privacy case against top public servants, a ministry and two former National ministers.

The High Court has ordered Peters to pay close to the full amount sought by the Crown on a scale of costs used by the courts - but it is understood the full bill to the taxpayer is around $1.07 million.

And the New Zealand First leader's debt to the Crown is higher than it might have been because he had turned down an offer from Crown lawyers to end his action against the two top public servants, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes and former Ministry of Social Development chief executive Brendan Boyle.

Justice Geoffrey Venning's costs ruling issued Monday afternoon says: "Mr Peters pursued allegations of bad faith against public officials in the public forum of the Court proceedings. Such allegations should not have been made without a proper basis. He also failed to accept a reasonable offer for resolution of part of the proceedings. There should be a cost consequence."

Peters is challenging the main High Court finding at the Court of Appeal, but that is not expected to be heard until beyond the election and court procedures settle costs awards in the interim.

In April, Justice Venning had dismissed all Peters' claims for declarations and damages in the case that Peters took alleging the Ministry of Social Development and Boyle, Hughes and National MPs Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley were involved in a 2017 leak of details of his seven-year overpayment for superannuation.

The judge said then: "Mr Peters' claim against all defendants fails as he is not able to establish that they were responsible for the disclosure of the [superannuation] payment irregularity to the media."

While the judge said the information was deliberately leaked and that leak would have been considered offensive by a reasonable person, he found both the key officials had a proper purpose in passing the information to ministers and the two ministers had a genuine interest in knowing it.

Had Peters been able to identify the leaker, the judge considered he might have qualified for between $75,000 and $100,000 in damages.

Peters told the court he was paying for the case from his own pocket, so the $317,000 order towards the Crown's costs would take up more than a year's net pay from his $334,734 gross salary as Deputy Prime Minister.

"The fact that costs are sought by the Crown or by defendants indemnified by the Crown is no reason for the normal costs rules not to apply."

Justice Venning's costs ruling released on Monday afternoon says Peters' lawyer Brian Henry had argued both sides should cover their costs themselves, because all the defendants' costs were paid by the Crown and the matters aired in Peters' case were of public interest.

However the judge found: "The fact that costs are sought by the Crown or by defendants indemnified by the Crown is no reason for the normal costs rules not to apply."

And on the issue of public interest, he said: "Mr Peters chose to pursue a private claim through the Court. While the case did involve consideration of aspects of the application of the Cabinet Manual, and actions of senior Chief Executives, I do not accept the case raised matters of sufficient public interest, outside Mr Peters’ personal interests, such that costs should not be awarded."

The case centred on the pre-election leak of the fact Peters had been overpaid national superannuation for seven years - and secretly paid back $18,000 when it was found out.

Peters, a one-time lawyer, had attempted to show negligence and bad faith by officials in telling their National government ministers of his overpayment of superannuation before the 2017 election, and he alleged a political conspiracy to damage him and New Zealand First at the polls.

Peters quietly filed court action against National ministers and officials the day before the general election, then went on to negotiate with both National and Labour in 'good faith' in its aftermath.

He later narrowed that to sue the top officials, MSD and the two ministers, seeking $450,000 for breach of his privacy and alleging a political conspiracy to damage him. 

Can you help our journalists uncover the facts?

Newsroom is committed to giving our journalists the time they need to uncover, investigate, and fact-check tough stories. Reader donations are critical to buying our team the time they need to produce high-quality independent journalism.

If you can help us, please donate today.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners