Case could cost Radio NZ litigant dear

Last updated 05:00 03/04/2014

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Former Radio New Zealand news boss Lynne Snowdon may have to pay up to $1.5 million in legal costs to the state broadcaster, after rejecting an early offer to settle her employment grievance.

RNZ is still working out what it cost to defend itself for 11 years in Snowdon's case, but estimates the total may be more than $1.5m.

In order for the case to go ahead last year, Snowdon had to come up with $240,000, either paid into court or by producing a bank bond.

The court had been told that even before her case went to a hearing, her side of it had cost her and her family $3.5m.

In a decision issued on Tuesday, the Employment Court said RNZ was "completely successful" and was entitled to costs from Snowdon. The court will fix the sum if the parties cannot agree.

Employment law specialist Andrew Scott-Howman said a "rule of thumb" was that the winning side in Employment Court cases was entitled to a contribution to their costs, usually about two-thirds of the actual cost.

However, a variety of factors could change that. One of them was if the losing party had rejected an offer to settle the case.

Judge Tony Ford said in his decision that, in 2003, RNZ made an offer of an undisclosed sum and some entitlements.

In evidence, Snowdon told the court the offer "disgusted" and "repulsed" her because a condition of it was that she should withdraw allegations of gross negligence and mismanagement in budgeting and accounting at RNZ.

She said the public broadcaster had covered up underfunding of the news budget - a claim the court rejected outright.

If the court thought the 2003 settlement offer was reasonable, and that rejecting it had led to unnecessary expense, that could be reflected in the costs award, Scott-Howman said.

Employment law promoted compromise and settlement, and the costs regime was one way of encouraging people to be efficient in the way they conducted court proceedings. But it was one thing to get a costs order and another to be able to enforce it, he said.

Victoria University law professor Gordon Anderson said many factors could increase a costs order, such as whether unnecessary steps had been taken.

In his decision, the judge had said a relatively straightforward employment dispute seemed to have spiralled out of control.

Anderson agreed the case seemed to get totally out of control. Even the best awards for unjustified dismissal were relatively small, amounting to perhaps a few months' income plus a modest sum for humiliation.

Snowdon had claimed $500,000 plus costs.

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Sharon Crosbie, who hired Snowdon at RNZ in the 1990s and gave evidence in the Employment Court, declined to comment yesterday about the decision.

Snowdon could not be contacted. Her lawyer, Richard Fletcher, said they were considering the decision.

- Wellington

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