By Dot Tumney
On November 4, the Supreme Court of South Australia overturned a damages award of more than $50,000 to Hindmarsh Island developers Tom and Wendy Chapman. The damages were awarded by the District Court last year after the Chapmans brought a defamation case against anthropologist Neale Draper over an article published by Green Left Weekly.
The Supreme Court found it had not been proved that Draper had said or authorised the words which the Chapmans had complained about, and ordered the Chapmans to pay Draper's costs.
The Chapmans are suing 14 individuals and community groups who have made statements about the proposed bridge to Hindmarsh Island. The Kumarangk Legal Defence Fund (KLDF) has been set up to assist those defendants, and KLDF spokesperson Tom Glynn said the Draper decision could be important for all the other defamation cases.
He said, "The court found that the Chapmans' evidence of Draper's involvement in the publication 'did not rise above mere conjecture'. So Neale Draper has been in the courts for more than two years on the basis of what the court has found was 'mere conjecture'. That the process went so long on that basis is a fundamental problem in the way the legal system works. We are especially concerned given that in at least two other 'Chaplibel' cases, the defendants have also said they were not responsible for what they are being sued for.
"We think the Chapmans should apologise to Neale Draper for the stress the case has caused, and we hope the Chapmans will consider again the bases on which they are suing this host of people."
Glynn said he was disappointed that the Court had made no finding about the wider issues raised through the defence of qualified privilege — the right to make reasonable comment about issues of public importance.
He said, "Many of the defendants will take great heart from this decision, but we had hoped the court would find that people should have the right to talk about something as important as the planning processes of a major public development".
The Chapmans' lawyer, Steve Palyga, claimed on ABC radio that the decision was based on a legal technicality and that the court had still found some statements to be defamatory.
The Chapmans are also suing a range of media organisations which have reported on the Hindmarsh Island issue, including the ABC, the Australian Financial Review and the Australian. They have also threatened to sue others, including the KLDF, for talking about the cases.