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Media lawyer says court unlikely to fast-track defamation suit brought by Colin Craig

Conservative leader Colin Craig is splitting his defamation suit against Green Party leader Russel Norman into two parts in the hope the first claim will be decided by the courts before the election.

Following advice from his legal team, Mr Craig will “proceed immediately against Mr Norman regarding his claims about the place of women,” he says in a statement.

“It is hoped by breaking the case into two stages, that a declaration of defamation may be obtained prior to the election this year,” Mr Craig says in a statement.

The Green Party plans to defend the action, today announcing a $70,000 fundraising effort for legal fees. Through its fundraising website, the Greens are asking New Zealanders who support free speech and tolerance to contribute.

Top media and defamation lawyer Robert Stewart, who is not involved with the case, says it’s unlikely the courts would expedite a civil trial in this case.

“It may be possible for Mr Craig’s legal team to seek an expedited trial but I would seriously question whether the court system will be willing or able to schedule a civil trial — probably a week and probably before a jury — before the election,” says Mr Stewart, a partner with Izard Weston.

The courts have already expedited at least one trial this election year, that of former ACT Party leader John Banks. However, that is a criminal matter. Mr Banks is standing trial at the High Court in May for charges relating to an electoral return.

Mr Craig says he is delaying a suit over Dr Norman’s comment about homosexuals.

“The reason the rest of Mr Norman’s comment will not be pursued in the first instance is that his lawyers have already indicated that discovery would include emails and other correspondence. Given the extensive debate around the redefinition of marriage, this is many hundreds, if not thousands of documents, and would result in prohibitive costs and time delays,” he says.

Breaking the claims into two or more parts is allowed under the law.

“A plaintiff can pick and chose what statement or words he or she wants to sue on, provided the claim is made within the limitation period, [which is] two years for defamation,” Mr Stewart says.

Mr Craig has said he is seeking a declaration and to cover his legal costs, not damages.

“Even though the only relief sought is a declaration, Dr Norman is still able to raise all the usual affirmative defences available to a defendant.  Honest opinion appears the most obvious one here,” Mr Stewart says.

Mr Craig says the public deserves “an honest debate.”

“A high standard of public debate is essential to a properly functioning democracy. I, like most New Zealanders, am tired of politicians corrupting the facts, making up stories, name calling, and generally behaving badly in political debate,” Mr Craig says.

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Comments and questions

It would be nice if for once Russell Norman stood on his own feet and paid his own account. If, as he professes he is right, then he will get his money back in costs. This is not about free speech, its about Russell Norman saying anything and everyone else paying for it. Any person who puts his money into this court case is just plain dumb. On a lighter side, Colin Craig HARDEN UP!

Agreed. Im no fan of Norman, but I do think if Craig has such a delicate disposition, then he probably isn't cut out for politics.

I'm just curious, from NBR readers' perspectives ... How should politicians be held accountable for comments, allegations and claims while campaigning? Obviously, you have to be thick-skinned to be a politician. But aside from a defamation suit, what are the alternatives to holding politicians accountable for their claims and assertions while campaigning? Have we as a society grown to accept mud slinging as part of elections?