Hearing today on SCF case judge

EMMA BAILEY
Last updated 05:00 17/03/2014

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A decision is expected today on whether New Zealand's largest alleged fraud trial continues or is stalled, potentially for years.

It is nearly four years since South Canterbury Finance (SCF) collapsed, with $1.58 billion of taxpayers' money paid to investors.

Former SCF chief executive Lachie McLeod and former directors Edward Sullivan and Robert White have pleaded not guilty to 18 individual and combined fraud charges laid by the Serious Fraud Office in December 2011.

Lawyers acting for the three defendants have formalised a bid for Justice Paul Heath to remove himself from the case.

If they are successful, a new judge would need to be found.

As the case is set down to last three to four months, a new fixture would need to be timetabled, which could push the case out years. It has already taken two years and three months to bring the men to trial.

If the application is unsuccessful, the trial will continue with the Crown calling its first witness, former SCF director Stuart Nattrass.

Before the trial started last Wednesday, the three Queen's Counsel for the defence claimed comments by SFO director Julie Read at a conference, where she said: "We are very fortunate to have Justice Heath as our trial judge", showed a perception of partiality and required the trial to be aborted. Justice Heath was chairing the conference.

Justice Heath said last Wednesday that her comment was "unfortunate" but innocuous and did not reflect bias on his part.

He declined to stand down but granted leave for counsel to make further submissions on the matter if they had more evidence to support their claim.

On Thursday, after defence counsel had conferred, Bruce Squire QC, acting for White, told the court the challenge to Justice Heath would be formally renewed.

"We need to put the matter on a formal footing," Mr Squire said.

He said affidavits would be filed by Wellington lawyer Scott Barker, who was at the conference when Ms Read made the comments, and a "senior silk" who would provide expert opinion on the matter.

Colin Carruthers QC, for the Crown, has indicated the application will be vigorously opposed.

The Crown was due to begin presenting evidence on Friday but this was cancelled to give counsel time to prepare for an urgent hearing this afternoon, when Justice Heath will hear the application to remove himself from the case.

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- The Timaru Herald

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