Police employee takes defamation action over comments made by police boss

Senior sergeant Laurie Culpan of the Counties Manukau police.
ANNA LOREN

Senior sergeant Laurie Culpan of the Counties Manukau police.

A former Counties Manukau police watch-house supervisor is suing the Attorney General on behalf of the Police Commissioner, alleging she was defamed in internal memos written about her by a senior police officer. 

Melissa Opai launched defamation proceedings against Senior Sergeant Laurie Culpan and the Attorney General regarding comments Culpan made about her in a performance appraisal, a briefing paper, a complaint made about her and in diary notes, all which were written in 2013. 

Her initial statement of claim sought $280,000 in aggravated damages from Culpan, who was in charge of the Counties Manukau police station at the time, for comments made by him that she said tarnished her reputation and removed her opportunity for promotion. 

She sought the same amount and further damages from the Attorney General, for which she initially claimed were breaches of her bill of rights, a breach of the principles of natural justice, and a breach of the code of conduct under the Policing Act. 

She later narrowed her pleadings against the Attorney General to that of "vicarious" defamation. 

"As well as vindication, Ms Opai wishes to expose shortcomings in the police," a judgment by the High Court's Justice Bell, released on Tuesday, said. 

Specifically Opai believed there was dysfunction within the Counties Manukau police ranks and a "culture of inequality and discrimination", the judgment said. 

Lawyers for the Commissioner argued her case is so trivial it shouldn't be heard. 

Justice Bell threw out Opai's case against Culpan, however the Attorney General's application to strike out her claim was unsuccessful, and both parties have been ordered to refile an amended statement of claim and a statement of defence. 

The unusual case has a long history which was canvassed in the judgment. 

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Opai was initially a police station watch-house supervisor, but now works in administration. 

Justice Bell said Opai was unhappy with the way she had been treated at work, but rather than lodge a personal grievance with the Employment Relations Authority, she decided to take the matter to court. 

Proceedings began in the Manukau District Court where she filed a statement of claim against the Attorney General, on behalf of the Police Commissioner, claiming her bill of rights had been breached, as well as the police code of conduct, and that she was victimised and discriminated against. 

In 2014 the court ordered the matter be transferred to the Employment Court, prompting her to change her statement of claim so that it only included defamation. 

In March 2015 she added Culpan to the same claim and the matter was transferred to the High Court because of the size of the compensation she was asking for. 

At an October hearing, lawyers for the Commissioner and Culpan tried to have her case thrown out, arguing her pleadings were "untenable", that the proceeding was "disproportionate", and that her statement of claim was defective. 

Lawyers for the defendants said her claims were "exaggerated" and "distorted," according to the judgment. 

Opai claimed the alleged defamatory comments made by Culpan in the appraisal were circulated to other police staff including an inspector, a human resources manager, senior police officers and police national headquarters. 

Opai also claimed that comments made by him in a subsequent briefing paper implied she was unfit to hold her position, and called into question her management style- allegations which she said were also repeated to various police staff. 

She also argued she was defamed when Culpan forwarded a complaint about her work to a human resources manager and other police staff, and also complained about diary notes Culpan kept about her, and which he passed onto another officer who took over his position. 

Opai is due to file an amended statement of claim against the Attorney General by the end of January. 

Police declined to comment, saying the case was still before the court. 

 - Stuff

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